They don’t even call them libraries any longer. The name has been euphemized into ‘learning centre’ – or would bowdlerized be a better expression? Libraries have slowly been eroded, with only major towns and cities retaining anything coming close to the description.
The argument goes that they aren’t needed any longer. We have Google and Wikipedia now, rendering the printed book superfluous. This kind of thinking is prevalent amongst those who either haven’t had an education, or have misunderstood it. The only way to research any subject in detail is to read about it, and this requires a greater level of thoroughness than following through the top hits on Google. To learn more about mechanisms for evolution, the life of William Bligh, or the state of British repertory theatre in the 1950s, to choose three random topics, requires the digestion of several competing tomes on the subject for a rounded view. Wikipedia is fine for a snapshot, but no more. To rely on it for information would be like trying to become an expert on King Lear after a single ten-minute lecture. Until the internet holds the vast resources of writing dating back centuries, with knowledge available free of charge – one day surely that will come to pass – we need the repository of the printed word to facilitate any real understanding of a subject. At the moment we are in a horrible half-way house. The internet isn’t thorough enough and libraries (in any real sense) have all but disappeared.
Another argument used is that people don’t use public libraries any longer – so why retain them? There is some merit to this argument, but it’s not the full picture. I sometimes use academic libraries, which are useful for specialist subjects but useless for broader knowledge. The last time I visited my local library (correction: ‘learning centre’) I ended up walking out after five minutes because I couldn’t hear myself think. Two children were using the bookcases as an assault course, running through them, and into anyone who happened to be standing in their way, whilst screaming at the top of their voices. The mother was sitting in a chair reading a newspaper, unconcerned. Staff members looked on, bored. I made a complaint to one, and she told me that everyone is welcome in the ‘learning centre’ and that we all have to make accommodations. I argued that such behaviour wasn’t appropriate for a library, and that it would be fine if it was a state-funded nursery, and I would perhaps be unjustified to complain my reading was being disrupted there – but surely in a library my view that some level of peace and silence should be retained had merit? She was not to be moved, and I left.
In fairness it was a partial improvement on the service I received the time before (I must be a sucker for punishment). It was quiet and peaceful for long enough to find a book I wished to borrow, and I took it to the counter. There the staff member simply pointed his fingers at a row of machines, like supermarket self-service checkouts. Whilst I figured out how to do what used to be his job for him, a middle aged lady next to me grew increasingly frustrated by her inability to figure out how to pay a 30p fine. I tried to help her. Five minutes later we were still going round in circles. “I’ll go and ask the man,” she said. “Good luck with that.” I left her to it.
I am only mildly nostalgic for the satisfying kerplunk of the old-fashioned date-stamper, which invariably left obscure one or more of the important numbers telling you when the book needed to be returned by. But it was nice to have at least a modicum of human contact, even if that meant shame-facedly paying a fine for a late return. “You know you can renew them online now?” “I’m sorry, I left it on my shelf and forgot about it.”
I suppose the death of the library is the death of an understanding and appreciation of knowledge, and the death of our willingness to rummage, to discover and to take a chance on subjects we hadn’t previously considered. This is a great shame, and when such attitudes are reinforced on subsequent generations, whilst school curricula tell children what to think not how to think, we’ll all be the losers. We’ll lose our ability to innovate, and to empower ourselves with knowledge.
The death of our appreciation of books is like the burning of the great Library of Alexandria, because it contained works and knowledge disapproved of by the religious elite. We see this attitude playing out in large parts of the world still. History is doomed to repeat itself.
My local ‘learning centre’ now also accommodates the Post Office, which has ‘downsized’. At least I’m back to queuing in it.
Theatre and book critic for Entertainment Focus, freelance writer and one third of the Doctor Who podcast The Complete Menagerie (Almost).