Back in 2010, right at the start of the post-recession austerity regime, you may remember that an egregious pro-cuts demonstration descended on Westminster. Now, of course, this is a democracy and everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they think austerity is great. That’s what I thought, anyway, as I watched on television, and then something caught my eye. One of the protestors carried a home-made placard that read;
It’s just a bit of fun, I suppose he might have argued. No, I’d have replied before I hit him, some things are too important to joke about.
The value of libraries to the communities they serve hardly needs to be emphasised but they’re especially useful for writers. Of course, writers use them to borrow books, for research and reference, digital resources and much more. But they are also valuable as places to work. ‘Where do you do your writing?’ writers are often asked, and most answer ‘At my desk,’ or something similar. But it’s a lonely business, hammering away alone at home, at a pitiless keyboard, and it’s one with many distractions; the contents of the fridge are just downstairs and the telly is just a click away. And then your neighbour clatters in his flip-flops onto his garden decking and switches on an inane commercial radio station at full blast just below your window, before firing up the Black and Decker on some abstruse garden DIY project. What now?
You could take the Rowling route and head for a café, as long as you have the cash (and the bladder capacity) to cope with an overpriced latte every half hour. More likely you’ll end up in the library, like I often do. I’m currently a member of three council library services, including in my own area. I have a membership card for my old university’s library as well as cards for the National Library of Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland. I know I can access a couple of other university libraries for working in, if not for withdrawing books. And I lecture in a small FE college campus with its own small library.
University libraries are inspiring places to work; whatever your research needs you’ll find the material you want and as you write you have a sense of belonging to a community of knowledge and learning and scholarship. Further, most university libraries these days have moved beyond the SILENCE! culture and provide areas for silent study, quiet study, and group study, as well as cafes and social areas. Prefer to work in silence, in an atmosphere of scholarly whispering or in a generalised buzz with an aroma of coffee? Choose your space.
The National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh is one of my favourite places to work. My reader’s card gives me access not only to their books but also their vast store of papers and maps and manuscripts, a bewildering range of which can be viewed online, much of it from my home laptop. As a member of Glasgow Libraries I can also use the mighty Mitchell Library, one of the world’s great municipal collections, with its vast range of lending facilities and specialist services. I remember hammering away on my laptop with a pile of books beside me in the Mitchell while the chap across the aisle was using one of the library PCs to access the web. He was browsing the site of an Ibiza club, in particular its photos of a wet t-shirt Competition. Libraries? All human life really is there.
Of course, libraries, from the local lending outfit to the great national institutions, offer a great deal more than books and study space. They run exhibitions and host writers’ and readers’ groups and special events to encourage reading and writing and library use. Like most writers, a decent amount of my income comes from contributing to events held in or run by libraries. There are all sorts of reasons for writers to cheerlead for libraries, not least of them self-interest.
Despite the cuts in library services during this long dark night of austerity, there are still hopeful signs. The rise of the genealogy craze caused new resources to be put into family history services, as libraries and archives saw an opportunity for a new source of income. A new Highland Archive Centre was opened in Inverness, for example, catering for the many people who flock to the Highlands seeking their roots. The Scotland’s People Centre at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh is also specifically designed to support family history research.
The opening of the new Library of Birmingham was, of course, contentious, given the closure of nearby local branches yet it was an incredible statement of intent; the body language said that libraries are part of the future, not the past, that books matter, reading matters, writing matters. The sheer daring and ambition of the Library of Birmingham was reflected in much of the media coverage of its opening, with reporters clearly puzzled at such an audacious new venture for what was, after all, just a library. The opening paragraph of a report on the BBC website gives a good example of the incredulity and negativity; ‘Birmingham’s new central library has opened at a cost of £189m,’ it began, ‘but in an era of spending cuts and library closures across the country, is such an outlay justifiable?’
I do have a secret worry. So much of the use we make of our libraries is free. In our libraries, a rich hoard of the United Kingdom’s historical, artistic and literary treasures is free for anyone to access. There is often concern that the arts are beyond the financial reach of ordinary people, and this can certainly be true in the case of opera, music, dance and theatre. Yet an incredible abundance of cultural riches is available simply by applying for a library card.
But, regrettably, there are politicians. Do they know that such a vast cultural resource is available to the lower orders for free? After all, few politicians these days are particularly well-read. Would they be happy about these cultural handouts if they did know? Most of them, I suspect, of whatever party, are closer in fiscal thinking to Libraries Suck Guy than they are to writers and readers and scholars.
And so to the moral of my tale. Use your local and national libraries. Don’t take your laptop to an expensive, tax-dodging coffee chain, but rather to a community of the written word near where you live. Talk libraries up to your friends, readers, audiences, pupils, neighbours, students, colleagues, congregations and clients. Emphasise that they’re free, especially if you are speaking to people on low incomes or who are unemployed. Let’s play our part in packing libraries with people who value and appreciate them.
And if, as a result, we writers start to struggle to find a seat in our libraries, we can console ourselves with this; we’ll always be the ultimate winners from increased library use.