Zadie Smith, award winning novelist, was given five minutes on the Today programme this morning to give her views on library closures. This is what she said.
“I grew up in a council flat decorated with books; hundreds of them. I never paused to wonder where my mother found all these books given the tightness of money generally. I just read them. A decade later we moved into a maisonette, where she filled the extra space with yet more books, arranged in a certain pattern. Second-hand Penguin paperbacks together, then the women’s press books, then Virago. Then several shelves of Open University textbooks on social work, psychotherapy, feminist theory. Busy with my own studies and oblivious the way children are, I didn’t noticed that my brothers and I were not the only students in that flat. By the time I did, my mother had a degree. We were reading because our parents and teachers told us to, my mother was reading for her life.
About two-thirds of those books had a printed stamp on the inside cover explaining their provenance: property of Willesden Green Library. I hope I’m not incriminating my family by saying that during the mid-80s it seems as if the Smith’s were covertly trying to move the entire contents of that library into the living room. It was a happy day when my mother spotted a signed pinned to a tree in the High Road: Willesden Green Library Amnesty. Next day we filled two black bin bags with books and returned them. Just in time – I was about to start my GCSEs.
I spent a lot of time in libraries since then but I remember the Spring of 1990 as the most intense study period of my life, probably because it was the first.
To choose to study with no adult looking over your shoulder and any other students for support and company; this was a new experience for me. I think it was a new experience for a lot of the kids in there. Until that Spring, we’d come to the library primarily for the cafe or the cinema or to meet various love prospects of whom our immigrant parents would not approve, under the cover of that all-purpose-immigrant-parents-silencing-sentence: ‘I’m going to the library.’
When the exams came we stopped goofing off. There’s no point in goofing off in the library, you’re acutely aware that the time only person’s time you’re wasting is your own. We sat next to each other at the long white tables and used the library computers and did not speak. Now we were reading for our lives.
Still it’s important not to overly romanticise these things; Willesden Green Library was not to be confused with the British Library. Sometimes whole shelves of books would be missing, lost, defaced or torn. Sometimes people would come in just to have a conversation while I bit my biros to pieces in frustration. Later I learnt what a monumental and sacred place a library can be.
I spent my adult life in libraries that make a local library look very small indeed; to some people clearly quite small enough to be rid of without much regret. But I know I never would’ve seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a hundred yards from the library in Willesden Green.
Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries but to other lives. Of course I can see that if you went to Eaton or Harrow, like so many of the present cabinet, you might not understand the point of such lowly gateways or be able to conceive why anyone would crawl on their hands and knees for the privilege of entering one. It’s always been and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money, what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, they ask, and if libraries matter to you, well why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if you value them? They’re the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money. At the extreme end of which logic lays the dangerous idea that people who fail to generate a lot of money for their families cannot possible value their families the way people with money do.
My own family put a very high value on education, on bookishess. Like many people without money we relied on our public services, not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities. We paid our taxes in the hope that they’d be used to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally. We understood very well that there are people who have no need of these services, who make their own private arrangements, in health care, and education, and property, and travel, and lifestyle and have a private library in their own private houses.
Nowadays, I also have a private library in my own private house and a library in the university in which I teach. But once you’ve benefited from the use of shared institutions, you know that to abandon them when they’re no longer a personal necessity is like Wiley Coyote laying down a rope bridge between two precipices, only to blow it up once he’s reached the other side so that no one might follow.
But no matter how many individuals opt out of it, community exists in Britain. And the commons of British life will always be the greater force practically and morally. Community is a partnership between government and the people and it’s depressing to hear the language of community, the so called ‘Big Society’, being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership as it attempts renege on the deal. What could be better than handing people back the power so that they might build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the already onerous tasks of building their lives and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government and the protection of public services to government, that being government’s mandate and the only possible justification for its power. That the grotesque losses of the private sector are to be nationalised, cut from our schools and libraries, our social services and our health care, in short from our national heritage, represents a policy so shameful I doubt this government will ever live it down.
Perhaps it’s because they know what the history books will make of them, that our politicians are so cavalier with our libraries. From their point of view, the fewer places you can find a history book these days, the better.”
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