Places of liberation where lives are literally changed

Poet and librarian Thomas McCarthy celebrates a collection that recognises the social power and importance of libraries

The Library Book

Edited with a Foreword by Rebecca Gray

Profile Books for The Reading Agency, £9.99

PUBLIC LIBRARIES have become such a normal part of urban life that town-dwellers rarely give them a second thought.

Therein lies the danger, of course, for we rarely pay political attention to something that has become everyday and matter-of-fact. Generally, the public only becomes fully alert to a public library when it is removed by armies of occupation or by decisions of local councils.

On one night in December of 1920, for example, Crown Forces decided on a major revision of the Cork library service: they burned the entire Carnegie Library to the ground, losing us 14,000 volumes in one grand barbaric act. The books that survived were the 1,000 volumes in the homes of the Carnegie Library borrowers that fateful night.

The reaction to the burning of Cork Library was instant, spectacular and inspiring. Hundreds of letters were sent to Cork from England, the Continent and America, expressing outrage, enclosing gifts of books or postal orders. English-born and Leeds-trained librarian of the day, James Wilkinson, gratefully received all outrage, books and money. Within 10 years he’d restored the library and fully rebuilt the collection. On re-opening day he and his staff couldn’t cope with the hundreds of adults and children who flocked to his new premises in the old RIC barracks at Tuckey Street.

In Cork, at any rate, people have flocked to the public libraries since the day of the burning. Just last year the Cork city library system lent over one million books. Can you believe it? In this digital age? And this traffic of books happened alongside the massive increase in Web traffic to the library’s pages like and The latter site, with its historic images and directories, is a vast resource for local historians and would-be historical novelists, not to mention film-makers.

Now, I hear on the grapevine, that the same library will be offering remote downloads of digital books, both printed and spoken. This is all part of the living space of the modern era. Wherever the constant reader goes, the library and bookshop must follow.

A little outrage about the loss of libraries can go a long way, as the authors of The Library Book prove in page after page of affection and indignation printed here. Rebecca Gray states her case forcefully in the foreword: “So many of the writers who’ve contributed describe the library as a place of liberation, a place where lives literally change, and change in a way infinitely more profound — and common — than in any other place I can think of.”

It is a bold claim, but fully borne out by the short essays which follow; essays from writers like Julian Barnes, Alan Bennett, Stephen Fry, Val McDermid and Zadie Smith. Reading these pieces I am reminded how little the social and cultural effects of the public library experience has changed in over 100 years.

Sure, books are more colourful, children are more noisy and healthy, computers are everywhere, special events and exhibitions animate the librarians’ working day, but the key effect is still the same: libraries will ever be a key trusting space and learning space in any community. Not to understand this is to be ignorant of a key strength in local community life. Not to know this could lead to catastrophic public decisions about library provision; decisions that have led to the decimation of many great library systems in present-day English cities.

Only now, perhaps a few years too late, a significant number of Conservative MPs and councillors have also discovered that to close a local library is to trigger a series of commercial retail actions in a neighbourhood or street than can lead to terminal commercial decline and loss of rates revenue. The dogs at the library door could have told them, but some people who should know about the retail trade never listen. To lose a branch library’s footfall is to lose 500 or a 1,000 weekly retail customers.

Ireland without its people means nothing to me, as James Connolly used to say — high streets without traffic and people are also sterile places, of no earthly good to librarians, retailers or socialists.

In The Library Book Rebecca Gray has assembled a series of moving witness statements which are sure to impress the sensitive, generally bourgeois, reader.

Here, some of the best writers in England defend that powerful trusting space of the public library; a space now seriously threatened by the high priests of austerity.

Alan Bennett, as usual, is brilliant in his memoir of the libraries in his life: “The first library I did find my way into was the Armley Public Library in Leeds where a reader’s ticket cost tuppence in 1940; not tuppence a time or even tuppence a year but just tuppence; that was all you ever had to pay. It was rather a distinguished building, put up in 1901, the architect Percy Robinson. Amazingly for Leeds, which is and always has been demolition crazy, it survives and is still used as a library, though whether it will survive the present troubles I don’t like to think.”

Tom Holland gives a precise account of ancient libraries, both built and burnt, while Julian Barnes can only be Julian Barnes, offering here a mythical defence of the book from a proposed second edition of England, England: “Since the contents of libraries were deemed valueless, the Coalition simply instructed its enforcement agency (formerly known as the Army) to burn the buildings to the ground. But after the first two incinerations, there were mass protests, and human shields were formed round many libraries ... ”

It is a fantasy, to be sure, but there are elements of fiction here that make me wince with the pains of possibility. Zadie Smith hits the nail on the head in a deadly accurate statement of her working class background:

“But I know I never would have seen a single university library if I had not grown up living a hundred yards from that 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 Eton or Harrow or Winchester or Westminster — 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 has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means to have no money.”

I only wish that Zadie Smith had the privilege of meeting the long lost Mr Wilkinson who was so proud of the seamstresses, engine drivers and labourers who were reading Darwin and Carlyle in his Cork Carnegie nest. That public libraries have survived bombings, moral crusades, great Depressions and changes of government is only testament to their simple and enduring usefulness as instruments of social fair play.


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