A lovesong to the libraries

Libraries. What’s the point of ‘em, eh? After all, you can get Amazon to deliver a book to your door for only £2. So why are we spending money on such a waste of resources? A luxury, that’s what they are. Sure, we can use one or two but, in a time of austerity, we can use the money more wisely.

The stupidity, the banality, the shallowness of this statement leaves me breathless. That otherwise intelligent, rational people can put forwards such a facile argument makes me sick. So this is my paean to the library: to the irreplaceable, invaluable system that’s imperilled by people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Earlham library

My former home, beloved and wonderful. Photo courtesy of Norfolk County Council, used with permission. My old work-mug is still in there, waiting for my return

Stories

Let’s start with books. Can we at least agree that books and reading are good things? Let me just refer you to a previous post, where I campaigned against stopping convicted prisoners from receiving books in jail – a campaign that has, thanks to all you petition-signatories, been won. Stories are one of the most important tools in our make-a-human-being kit. Can we at least agree on this much?

Reading increases empathy, thus reducing crime and antisocial behaviour
It boosts intelligence, vocabulary and all that sort of thing
It aids relaxation and mental health
It benefits concentration and memory, including in Alzheimer’s sufferers
And it’s fun

Can we agree on this much? If you have any doubts, do a simple web-search on the benefits of reading.

Cost

I’m basing this section of the figure of £2 a book, as given in an argument I had a few days ago – the argument that inspired this post. I won’t bother debating this – though you might – because the precise number isn’t that important. But let’s break it down a little further. The under-fives read at least a book a day. It’s what bedtime is for, right? One of the essential building-blocks of a well-balanced human being. £2 a book is £14 a week. £56 a month. £672 a year. Still look like a minor expense? It’s also 365 books that you either have to store or dump. Over 1,800 before a child turns five.

Let’s turn to a different audience and look at those with poor eyesight. An audiobook is around £8 on the same monolithic retail-site as I mentioned above. Large-print books are at least £4. It doesn’t take long before these costs mount up. And these are the cheap ones; new audiobooks regularly clock in around £20 each. See where I’m going with this?

Discovery

That’s one thing. That’s a start. But I’ve never been too concerned with money. Money is either there or not there. I’m more concerned with this: how will people know what books are? I don’t know any parent who hasn’t bred their child in the library. Every single time I go into the library I see children experiencing the same joy of books that I felt when I was small; just to be surrounded by images, worlds, ideas – empathy – is a miracle. I was made in the library. If you’re reading this then I’m prepared to bet that you were too.

You can’t go on Amazon and choose a book. Amazon exists for those who know what they want. You can’t browse. You might be able to find something that catches the eye – but, week in, week out, that’s not what the internet is for. You can’t hit gold with random searches unless you’re magnificently sure of a genre, a style, a type of book. And, in that case, whence the empathy? Whence the discovery? Whence the finding concepts that you’d never previously been exposed to?

Every single time I go into a library I see things I’ve never seen before. I wander aimlessly, half taking in titles, covers, dreams, visions; concepts I never knew existed. If I shopped only online I’d never have discovered half of the authors I’ve come to love, to regard as friends, to build as deep parts of my psyche. Some days I’ll come home with nothing. Some days I’ll come out with only what I went in to find. But there’s always, always the possibility that I’ll come out with treasure. And it’s not only me who’ll benefit. Every day I try and understand the world, to see things a little clearer, have a broader, more expansive perspective. Surely the world can only benefit?

All this is true of physical bookshops, of course. Except libraries allow us to take risks. The cost is negligent: the risk of an overdue charge, perhaps. A little time. How many new authors have you encountered through Amazon? I can’t think of a single one, save maybe for the odd present I’ve bought for someone else and decided it sounds the sort of thing I’d actually like to gift myself. Libraries let us try new things, they let us test both new authors and ourselves.

Every time we step into a library we go on an adventure. We enter a land of magic and miracles. We’re pirates hunting hoarded gold. What right have we to deny our children this world of jaw-dropping mind-expanding majesty?

Computers

It is astounding how arrogant we are. How comfortable in the face of our own privilege. We think that because we don’t need things that no-one does. Well here’s a shock for you: not everyone has a computer. Not everyone is free. I used to work in a library – feel free to point out my biases – and much of my time was spent aiding people with the computers. Those that needed most assistance were the elderly, struggling to get to grips with what, for them, was new technology. There were also people running businesses from the library, buying and selling. People working on CVs, managing finances and the like.

The users that touched me most, though, were the migrants. Not refugees in my case, although there must be many people whose only connection with home was via a tentatively held email connection with family and friends left behind. The people from homeless hostels, desperately trying to find work, find social housing, to better themselves – or simply for warmth. What right have we, the (relatively) wealthy and well-educated, to deprive the poorest people of such a place, such an opportunity?

Integration and social interaction

This overlaps with the other headings because neat boundaries are always illusions, and libraries are always boundary places. They’re open to all. You know how rare and important that is? Where else can the well-to-do mix with the poorest of the poor, tacit agreements making everyone welcome and respectful of the needs of others? They are the great centre-ground, non-political, non-judgmental.

Libraries are places where every ethnicity is welcome. It’s where people go to learn English (or where English people go to learn foreign languages). It’s where immigrant mothers bring their children to make them part of wider society. It’s often the first port-of-call for new arrivals – whether inter-nationally or beyond – to find out more about their new home, to find ways of belonging, to fit in.

When I worked in the public library service I knew a family of Bangladeshis that came in most days. The mother spoke not a word of English but the kids were fluent. The oldest girl acted as a proxy for her mother, bringing in letters from the council for us to translate and explain. Even if the girl hadn’t spoken English we’d have been able to help because libraries offer a translation service covering most languages you can think of.

In the meantime the kids were reading books, learning English, exploring our world. Occasionally they were pesky, but that’s kids for you. And I tell you my heart melted when one of them drew a picture for me.

Other families were Polish. How much did it mean to them that we could provide them with books in their native language? We also got regular supplies of books in Tamil for another family. Some organisations claim that migrants don’t seek to integrate with western society, and yet these same people also want to close libraries. It’s bewildering. It’s maddening.

And, of course, it’s not just a question of race. Libraries bridge generations too, like no other place I can think of. They provide refuges for vulnerable people; company for the lonely, the ill and the isolated. They make happiness. They give essential social contact and ask nothing in return.

A safe and neutral place

I’ve left this until last because it’s not the most obvious advantage of libraries. But it is, for me, the single most important. I’ll say it again: a library is a safe, neutral and welcoming place. Do you know how vital this is? Can you think of any other places in western society that offers warmth, shelter, education, information and entertainment for no charge? I can’t. Not only is there no charge but there’s no expectation. No pressure, no sponsorship, nothing but books, magazines, aid, assistance.

My library was at the interstice of some of the very wealthiest housing in the city and some of the poorest. Every day, when the schools closed, the young teens would come in to use the computers. Sometimes they were annoying. Sometimes we had to turf them out. But they kept coming back, and they kept being welcomed, because they knew they were safe. What would they do if the library didn’t exist? Stay at home all afternoon? Many of them were single-parent and poorly educated: for some, home wasn’t a refuge. Should they hang around in gangs? Is the alternative for them to discover sex and alcohol at a horrendously early age? I’m not saying that the library prevented this, but at least it gave them an option, a chance.

And whilst they were in the library, what did they see? They saw other races. They saw other ages. They mixed – hell, some even helped the aforementioned elderly with their problems. No-one judged. I want to say they were free, but there were controls: the library staff work hard to maintain a place of equality for all, respecting everyone’s right to be themselves free of harassment and judgment. Sometimes that means saying no.

I ask again: where else in this society does such a place exist?

It makes me sick, absolutely sick, to see this under threat. And it makes me rage to think that the people responsible for the closure of libraries are those who have never used them. This mandate comes from the rich, from the privileged. They see only a useless repository of books – simple compressed vegetable matter that’s increasingly redundant. Saying that ‘Well I can’t see the point of libraries, so there can’t be one,’ is arrogance of the highest order.

I don’t need libraries. Really, I’m comfortable enough in my life to get by without. Certainly I’d lament them; I wouldn’t know what to do with myself on my Wednesday mornings. But I’d cope.

But I will not go gently into that good night. I know how necessary they are not just for me but for those less fortunate than me. I want society to be healthy and happy, and that can only be achieved with places like libraries that benefit everyone without exception.

The future of libraries is one where we combine traditional services with other underfunded – but essential – provisions such as mental heath and social services. In Rob’s Paradise there’d be staff on hand to give advice to all on a need by need basis. I suggested once that libraries should take on some of the services of the embattled Post Office: there are considerable practical difficulties there – a legal mandate to lend cash and security concerns – but I still think it’s a good idea. Libraries already host police surgeries. Why not mental health counselling or just basic financial advice?

A safe, neutral place. Libraries shouldn’t be cut, shouldn’t be hamstrung by targets and finances. They should be expanded and broadened. We need to stand up for what we have before we’re forced to face up to what we’ve lost.

Finally

If I’ve come across as angry here, if this has felt like a rant, then I’m sorry. And then I’m also not sorry, because I am angry, and because there are some things worth ranting about. I spit at the vandals who are doing their best to dismantle the love – yes, love – that libraries have provided not just for me but for millions like me. I spit at them – but I also pity them. They are not proper humans. They are half-baked. They are sociopaths.

Most of them are merely ignorant. I’d weep for them, but I’m too busy weeping for the world I love.

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I invented the Wii

I invented the Wii.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. But I did come up with something surprisingly similar in Chivalry a year or two before the console was released. I also predicted the London riots. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the concept of geostationary orbit.

Yes, we live in interesting times. Technology is developing so quickly that it seems like some idle thought that might make a cute idea for a story is suddenly there on the high street a month or so later. It’s annoying: we missed the moment. What might have been visionary had we been published just a little earlier is now old hat.  No point getting wound up about it. It’s just the way of the world.

But this is an amazing age. It seems as if there never have been so many possible futures. The Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, that inspired so many seminal authors, has been replaced with a general uncertainty. Are we heading for Utopia or for dystopia? The fear of mutually assured destruction has diminished somewhat and has been replaced by so many questions. Now the villain’s not the Soviets but the planet itself.

All this is fantastic for authors. Never has there been so much inspiration all around. It makes for hard work, of course – all the probability paths, stretching out ahead of us: which do we chose? Which are dead ends? But it’s hard for a writer of speculative fiction to go on the internet or switch on the news and not see something to play with.

How will social media develop in the future? Will we need to leave our homes again? Will military drones and spy-planes become the robotic killers we all fear, or will they be remotely controlled by humans? Either way there are stories there. How will technology affect development, both individually and as a society?

Buggered if I know. But it’s good fun to speculate, even better to take one of these threads and run with it and create your own personal future. Which is, in essence, all that science-fiction is. The only rule is that you have to be consistent within the world you’ve built.

I reckon it’s pretty clear that, just like the classic 50s sci-fi, a lot of the societies created by modern authors will be proved to be ‘wrong’. Remember all the robots that we though would be strolling around today? The underground cities of Asimov? The post-nuclear wasteland that was all that was left of the old world? My favourite ‘error’ of those novels was the way that everyone, every single person, smoked cigarettes – even in worlds set some three hundred years in the future.

Of course, this doesn’t make 50s science-fiction any less memorable and enjoyable. Science-fiction (and, for once, I am including my preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ here) is perhaps the most philosophical of genres. The whole point is to create an imagined future, and that, almost by definition, involves a philosophical viewpoint. And that view almost always reflects to society in which it was written. Thus the McCarthyite terror of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Of course, it’s much, much harder to see these themes at the time. We need hindsight to provide perspective, to filter out the ‘noise’ of other genres and of the many, many exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps the 10s (I assume that’s what we’ll call this decade; I’ve not actually heard anyone use it yet) will prove to be the era without a theme. Perhaps there are just so many possibilities that we end up with a spaghetti-plate of twisting ideas that defy classification. Perhaps the ‘theme’ will be a lack of unification, just a plethora of different thoughts without any sort of commonality. Or maybe we’ll see an age that responds to global austerity by producing a weight of dystopian hells. Or the opposite as we imagine a better world ahead.

As for me, it’s too early in my career to really self-analyse. If there is a common thread in my writing, then I guess it’s one of the ‘odd man out’; and that in itself is influenced by the culture of the 1950s. Not science fiction, but film noir. I’ve never really got on with the perfect protagonist. It’s the Everyman who fascinates me; the idea that it could be you. That anyone can affect the world if thrust into the right (or wrong) situation.

Maybe that’s a reflection of my own subconscious desire to be special, to be different. Am I just revealing my own insecurities through my writing? No idea. I wonder if all this musing, this self-reflective whimsy, is part of what makes me a writer. It’s all what if..? what if…? what if..?

And there’s no better starting point for a story.