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Austerity's Attack on Knowledge

Assaulting Libraries

by BINOY KAMPMARK

What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.

– Archibald MacLeish, ‘The Premise of  Meaning’, American Scholar, Jun 5, 1972

If libraries are bastions of intellectual freedom where repositories of knowledge can be trotted out to dispel darkness, closing them implies the converse.  The intellectually hungry are to be starved in the Britain of David Cameron, and writers and readers are getting alarmed. Those who would normally not have access to those sources will be kept in perfect ignorance.  But the trends are, sadly, global, and the library is under assault as the regimes of banksters and technocrats take hold of the public purse.

The public letter addressed to Britain’s culture minister Ed Vaizey and signed by over 200 signatories including Kate Mosse, Patrick Ness, Yann Martel and Joanna Trollope earlier in the week is a reminder of the crisis.  ‘In opposition you were a passionate critic of library closures’ (Guardian, Dec 15). ‘Please act Mr. Vaizey, and show library users across the country that you remain a passionate advocate for our public library service, and have not left your convictions at the door on entering office.’

There is no doubt that some defenders of the library are attempting to protect an anachronistic ideal. For one thing, libraries are, in many countries at least, shedding their books like piles of unwanted clutter. All too often, books are abandoned or left outside before the massive wave of digitization that is taking place.  The hard copy is moving into the world of software, searchable data bases and the type-friendly Google, to say nothing of the irritating social media networks that are now also preoccupying patrons.

Books can be increasingly read and purchased online. Go into, for instance, the San Francisco public library, and you are acutely aware that the perusing of books comes secondary to the use of the computers and audio visual matter.  That said, one-third of Americans rely on public libraries for internet access, a staggering statistic by any stretch of the imagination.  They are the perfect places to encourage children to read.  They provide avenues for instruction in other languages.

Even in the great libraries of the world – take the splendid New York Public Library – an entire department, the prestigious Slavic and Baltic division – was closed due to a dramatic fall in funding.  As Paul LeClerc, President and CEO of the NYPL wrote in the Huffington Post (May 6, 2010) 2011 would see ‘a devastating $37 million’ reduction in funds.  The Los Angeles County public library system faces an annual deficit of $22 million over the next decade (Nation, Dec 19).  Other libraries have had to face periodic closures.

In a piece by Madsen Pirie (Spectator, Aug 30, 2010), government statistics of gloom are noted.  Over the previous 5 years, the number of people visiting libraries dropped by almost a third.  Over 60 percent of adults refrained using them except once a year. The result is that councils have also done their bit in hacking into the library chain, cutting back hours of staff and closing facilities. To again quote LeClerc in the context of New York, ‘Almost six million fewer items would be circulated.  Most impacting to New Yorkers would be the need to close ten libraries.’

The modern library may be a different beast to what it was originally founded as, but it remains indispensable. A UNESCO document admits to the role of the public library in providing the ‘conditions of lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of … individual and cultural groups’.  If we accept, as Herbert Samuel did, that a library is thought in cold storage, then everything must be done to ensure that that storage facility is kept afloat.  Sadly, with the likes of Mr. Vaizey in charge, that is proving an increasingly challenging proposition.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com