The secret life of libraries
They have always had a dusty image – and never more so than now – but
libraries are at the heart of our communities. With the axe about to
fall, Bella Bathurst reveals just what we're about to lose
The Observer, Sunday 1 May 2011
You can tell a lot about people from the kind of books they steal. Every
year, the public library service brings out a new batch of statistics on
their most-pilfered novelists – Martina Cole, James Patterson,
Jacqueline Wilson, JK Rowling. But in practice, different parts of
Britain favour different books. Worksop likes antiques guides and
hip-hop biographies. Brent prefers books on accountancy and nursing, or
the driving theory test. Swansea gets through a lot of copies of the UK
Citizenship Test. In Barnsley, it's Mig welding and tattoos ("I've still
no idea what Mig welding is," says Ian Stringer, retired mobile
librarian for the area. "The books always got taken before I could find
out.") And Marylebone Library in London has achieved a rare equality.
Their most stolen items are The Jewish Chronicle, Arabic newspapers and
But the figures show something else as well – that among all communities
and in all parts of Britain, our old passion for self-improvement
remains vivid. Unlike DVDs or CDs or Xbox games, books removed from
public libraries have no resale value. Unless they're very rare or very
specialist, even hardbacks aren't worth anything anymore. So the only
reason to take books is to read them.
Even so, theft remains a sensitive subject. "If someone suggested the
idea of public libraries now, they'd be considered insane," says Peter
Collins, library services manager in Worksop. "If you said you were
going to take a little bit of money from every taxpayer, buy a whole
load of books and music and games, stick them on a shelf and tell
everyone, 'These are yours to borrow and all you've got to do is bring
them back,' they'd be laughed out of government." But theft – or loss,
or forgetting – is not a new thing. During the 1930s, supposedly a far
more upright age, 8.8m books vanished from the library system every
There are 4,500 public libraries in Britain, as well as almost 1,000
national and academic libraries. As local authority budgets are reduced
by the government's cuts, up to 500 libraries around the country will
have to close. Librarians – traditionally seen as a mild, herbivorous
breed – are up in arms. Partly because public libraries are often seen
as a soft target; partly because they say local authorities consistently
undervalue the breadth of what they do; and partly because the cutting
will be done during a recession, which is exactly when everyone starts
going to the library again.
But the cuts also underscore a deeper confusion about what libraries
are: what they do, who they serve, and – in an age where the notion of
books itself seems mortally flawed – why we still need them. What's the
point of buildings filled with print? Isn't all our wisdom electronic
now? Shouldn't libraries die at their appointed time, like workhouses
and temperance halls?
The old clichés do not help the cause, given that libraries are meant to
be austere places smelling of "damp gabardine and luncheon meat", as
Victoria Wood put it, and librarians are either diffident, mole-eyed
types or disappointed spinsters of limited social skills who spend their
time blacking out the racing pages and razoring Page 3.
In Worksop, Peter Collins radiates a love both of libraries and for the
infinite variety of people who use them. He's 33 and "always defined
myself by being a librarian. I'd say to girls: 'Guess what I do for a
living?' Admittedly, they were the kind of girls who might be impressed
when I told them I had an MA in librarianship, but I was just so proud
of it, so in love with what I did. When I first met my future wife, she
got a tirade about the magic of libraries."
Collins believes that libraries are just as vital now as they were
during the 40s, when Philip Larkin complained of stamping out so many
books in a week that his hand blistered. Even so, he spends much of his
time in a ceaseless game of catch-up. "Libraries are always trying to
prove themselves because what they provide is so intangible. How do you
quantify what someone gets from a book or a magazine?"
Attempts to do so often end up in trouble. "The council once asked us
for an assessment of outcomes, not output," says Ian Stringer. "Output
was how many books we'd stamped out, and outcome was something that had
actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out
a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that's an outcome;
or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It
lasted until one of the librarians told the council they'd had someone
in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they'd never brought it back.
The council stopped asking after that."
The great untold truth of libraries is that people need them not because
they're about study and solitude, but because they're about connection.
Some sense of their emotional value is given by the writer Mavis Cheek,
who ran workshops within both Holloway and Erlestoke prisons. At
Erlestoke she had groups of eight men who so enjoyed the freedom and
contact of the writing groups they ended up breaking into the prison
library when they found it shut one day. Which authors did they like
best? "Graham Greene," says Cheek. "All that adventure and penance. His
stuff moves fast, it's spare and it's direct."
Greene might seem a surprising choice, but then what people choose to
read in extremis often is. In London during the Second World War, some
authorities established small collections of books in air-raid shelters.
The unused Tube station at Bethnal Green had a library of 4,000 volumes
and a nightly clientele of 6,000 people. And what those wartime readers
chose were not practical how-to manuals on sewing or home repairs, but
philosophy. Plato and his Republic experienced a sudden surge in
popularity, as did Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell, Bunyan and Burton's
Anatomy of Melancholy.
Ian Stringer worked in Barnsley just after the 1980s miners' strike.
"Library issues doubled during the strike, they were the highest they've
ever been. A lot of ex-miners wanted books on law because they wanted to
challenge the legality of what the government was doing. Or they needed
practical self-help stuff like books on growing your own, or just pure
escapism." The same thing is happening now.
Paul Forrest used to go out with the mobile library around the deprived
areas of Edmonton, north London. "It was quite shocking how isolated
people are sometimes. At times, books or talking books are the only
connection to the world they've got. And the mobile librarians really
know their customers' interests – not just that they like romances, for
instance, but romances with a bit of spice, not too much sex, a bit of
history. Those books are almost a form of medication; I reckon we save
the NHS a fortune in antidepressants."
For many years, Ian Stringer worked on Barnsley's mobile libraries. So
potent was the South Yorkshire service that at one point during the
1980s, "we had four couples leaving their spouses for each other. We
ended up calling it the Mile Out Club." What was going on? "I think it's
because you used to have two people going out, usually a man and a
woman, in the van sometimes for nine hours at a stretch. Often it would
be an older man and a younger woman, and I reckon some of the younger
women had married young, and this was the first chance for them to see
what an older man could be like. And some of the spots they'd get out
to, like the farms, they'd be quite secluded. Not that anyone ever
delayed the service, of course." By the time the fourth couple got
together, the erotic charge of the vans had grown so great that "all the
relatives ended up having a fight on the loading bay, everyone pitching
in, all chucking boxes of library tickets at each other".
Inevitably, libraries are also used as a refuge by many who never had
any intention of mugging up on the latest literary prize shortlist. It's
an odd thing that libraries – by tradition temples to the unfleshly –
can sometimes seem such sexy places. Perhaps it's their churchiness or
the deep, soft silence produced by so many layers of print, or simply
the hiding places provided by the shelves. "There's a big following on
the internet for sites on librarians and people with library fetishes,"
says Kerry Pillai, manager of Swansea library. "I don't know why. But we
do have a lot of attractive staff here." Has she ever been approached?
"I did get sniffed once," she says. "In the lifts."
"In the 60s, before the Lady Chatterley trial," says Ian Stringer, "you
used to get block books – literally, wooden blocks in place of any books
the librarians thought were a bit risqué, like Last Exit to Brooklyn.
You had to bring the block to the counter and then they'd give you the
book from under the desk. So of course you got a certain type of person
just going round looking for the wooden blocks."
There are other uses for libraries. In Marylebone they take a lenient
view of sleepers. "As long as they're vertical, it's all right," says
Nicky Smith, senior librarian. "If they're horizontal or snoring, then
we wake them up. Mind you," she adds cheerily, "we were always told to
wake people well before closing time, because if they turn out to be
dead, then you won't get home before midnight." Marylebone has
particular cause to be vigilant; it has the unusual distinction of being
one of the few libraries in Britain where someone has actually died.
Edgar Lustgarten was well known as a TV personality during the 50s and
60s. He presented an early version of Crimewatch, talking the viewers
through the topical murder- mysteries of the day. On 15 December 1978,
he went to the library as usual and was found some time later, dead at
his desk. What had he been doing? "Reading the Spectator."
Worksop has a resident book-eater. "We kept noticing that pages had been
ripped from some of the books," says Peter Collins. "Not whole pages,
just little bits. It would always be done really neatly, just the tops
of the pages. And then we'd see these little pellets everywhere, little
balls of chewed paper cropping up in different parts of the library.
Eventually we figured out who it must be. None of us wanted to say we'd
noticed him munching away at the books, so I approached him and said
something like I'd noticed 'tearing' on some volumes. He said he didn't
know anything about it, but we've never seen him back."
"And we had a streaker once," Collins continues. "In Tamworth. He got
into the lifts, and somewhere between the first and second floors he
managed to take off all his clothes, run naked through Music and Junior,
and then vanish out the front doors. The library there is right next to
a graveyard, so goodness only knows what happened to him. Still, all
part of life's rich tapestry."
He says that reading seems to be becoming an increasingly alien concept
for children. "The pace of life is different now, and people expect art
to happen to them. Music and film do that, a CD will do that, but you
have to make a book happen to you. It's between you and it. People can
be changed by books, and that's scary. When I was working in the school
library, I'd sometimes put a book in a kid's hands and I'd feel excited
for them, because I knew that it might be the book that changed their
life. And once in a while, you'd see that happen, you'd see a kind of
light come on behind their eyes. Even if it's something like 0.4% of the
population that that ever happens to, it's got to be worth it, hasn't
The libraries' most powerful asset is the conversation they provide –
between books and readers, between children and parents, between
individuals and the collective world. Take them away and those voices
turn inwards or vanish. Turns out that libraries have nothing at all to
do with silence.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
Arno H.P. Reuser
CEO, Reuser's Information Services
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