I probably shouldn’t admit this but I never look at the readers’ comments that appear beneath my columns on the Times website. I’m not avoiding the paywall, I’m avoiding the pain. The online column is the modern-day version of the pillory. The author is locked firmly in place while the rotten vegetables splatter all around. I prefer to release my words into the world and imagine them covered only in golden praise.
Then I received Don’s letter. In a recent column, I discussed the threat to close hundreds of local libraries. I admitted that, in my experience, local libraries are musty, uninspiring places — dispensing Mills & Boon rather than Pound and Eliot — and not the temples of learning I romantically want them to be. In his letter, Don described my piece as a “misinformed tirade” and held up his local library as an important “communal asset” that was “airy and light” and a “centre of knowledge and information” used by people of all ages.
As a resident representative, he invited me to go along and see for myself. The letter made me uneasy. I hadn’t been in a local library for quite a while so maybe my opinion was indeed out of date. Consequently, I got on the Tube last Tuesday and went off to meet Don for my guided tour, hoping I wouldn’t be set about with a Catherine Cookson omnibus the second I stepped through the door.
Don, a smartly dressed senior citizen, led me into what he described as “a truly modern library”. My first impression was that there weren’t anywhere near as many books as I expected. There were audio books — quite a lot of them — but, for some reason, they never seem quite so worthy of respect. There was also an extensive DVD selection, mainly popular movies. I became anxious. I realised I’d gone there eager to be proved wrong. I’d criticised local libraries because my personal experience of them hadn’t been good and I always feel an obligation to be totally honest in these columns.
However, I felt uneasy about somehow finding myself on the wrong side in the library cuts debate, shoulder to shoulder with those who see books only as something to give ambience to a cosy pub — like a horsebrass or a Toby jug. Now I was worried that my out-of-date complaints about libraries had been replaced by a new horror — the books weren’t musty, they were missing. I was told by a senior library person that, in the old days, they kept books for years, even if no one ever borrowed them. It was decided that these unpopular books would be sold off or given to charity shops. Now the aim was only to stock books that lots of people wanted to read.
Books still mattered but times had changed and services such as free computer access had become more and more important. I said, with a slightly desperate plea for reassurance in my tone, that perhaps some people came in for the library’s regular Saturday knitting class and thought: “While I’m here I’ll grab a book.” Heads nodded.
As Don promised, the library was airy and light. There was a separate children’s floor that was colourful and welcoming, and a teenage floor where again there were not as many books as I’d hoped. However, what books there were, I was told, were selected by the teenagers themselves. I was pleased to spot Plato’s Symposium on the shelf. There were also dozens of Manga comics. It reminded me that I didn’t read what you’d call a proper book till I was 21. Before that it was just comics. My passion for language, reading and, indeed, art came from them. My book-based snobbery came later, although, if pressed, I’d probably still choose Swamp Thing over Symposium. I felt a little easier about the lack of books.
The library had loads of computers. The general feel of the place was a cross between a clean, efficient secondary school and a cybercafé. No one was whispering. With the staff’s encouragement, I actually joined the library, and proceeded to choose a book. I wanted Tony Blair’s memoirs but that had already been stolen so I opted to reread Nineteen Eighty-Four. At last, George Orwell fans can reclaim the Big Brother franchise.
The smiling lady on the front desk pointed towards a machine on the wall. I put my newly issued card in a slot, scanned the book and got a slip showing the return date, which doubled as a perfect bookmark. I’m already seeing that date as a target. I work better with a deadline. Incidentally, I can return the book to any library in the borough and, you guessed it, renew it online.
There are many classes and events at the library. It really seems to be, as Don said, a communal asset. When I criticised local libraries I didn’t know exactly what I was attacking. At the same time, Angry of Hampstead, when he’s outraged at the idea of library closures, probably doesn’t know exactly what he’s defending. This was just one library but I think it’s indicative of how libraries are evolving. I’m going to have to ditch my literary elitism and just enjoy the book-swiping. And I’m not talking about Blair’s memoirs.