Why we need libraries

16 January 2020 Why

Well, it was easy, wasn’t it? After only a few decades of devaluing the arts, writers, writing, other devaluations became easier. Take away the principal paths we have to empathy with others, to ambient joy, take away tangible, intimate proof of human creativity and ingenuity, remove the creation of private and communal joys and life goes badly for us.

The UK’s ever-quicker dissolution of the supports that sustain our weakest and most excluded citizens has been shocking, but predictable. The weakening of the legal system that defends everyone has been dangerous, but predictable. The increasing attacks on the democracy that tries to defend everyone – predictable. The pathways to social mobility that free everyone – predictable. Without a public agreement about its value, empathy is forced underground, our society no longer acts as if human beings matter. Our freedom, comfort, agency, joy, eccentricity, creativity, ingenuity, individuality have been ignored and then gradually submerged. This has made us lonely, sad, angry, bewildered, despairing, dangerous.

And, of course, the libraries had to go. The levers are apparently disinterested, purely financial. Austerity has punched away the softening of life’s harsh places, the reserves of compassion for those in hardship, the understanding that misfortune waits for everyone. The library – among the last refuges for the lost – had to go. There is no money available for thinking-related activities, for sane computer access, advice, relief, company, hope.

Read a book and you’re at peace, at rest in the hands of a voice other than your own, free in the experiences, the feelings, the lives of others. You appreciate the tender complexity of humans. You are not alone. You drink up freedoms, joys, experiments, companionship. And that can’t be allowed. You must be at the mercy of online propagandists and racist fictions, lies that would be answered in a library. You must be whipped into a frenzy of paranoid isolation, ready to act wildly.

But this is all the kind of over-emotional nonsense you would get from a writer, isn’t it?


Saving ourselves

We live in an age of narcissism, so allow me to be autobiographical, factual, practical. My first meeting with a library was in the Perth Road, Dundee. It was a Carnegie temple to books, a place you couldn’t enter without getting taller, a palace for everyone. The library made me a member and then gave me books for free. All the tall, full shelves of mystery, possibility, adventure – they were mine. I was worth that. Child of an unhappy marriage, I had my books, my ways out. As the marriage fragmented and my mother and I were literally homeless, living in a caravan, renting in a damp, temporary world of hungry utility meters and stress – I had my books, my ways out. I had the dignity they gave me.


"The joy and respect of the library first handed me my passion,
my vocation, my real job that earns money and pays tax."


The dignity and pleasure of the library was part of my beginning to want more. Little me, scared me, nervous me, self-loathing me – I still couldn’t help wanting more books and then more than reading books. The only thing more than reading is writing. The joy and respect of the library first handed me my passion, my vocation, my real job that earns money and pays tax. Over the broad wooden counter that loomed above me, here it came – my happy future.

Like many writers, for years I didn’t earn enough to survive. I was lucky, I got slightly published – but I still wasn’t earning a living. A library saved me again. Imagine an average rainy evening in Clydebank. I have spent my day being a Community Arts Worker. I provide workshops and classes and groups for single mothers, unemployed people in a post-industrial wasteland, kids too bright to be poor without noticing and being hurt. Between the last session of the afternoon and the evening’s work I shelter in the library. We’re all in here: the old and lonely, the hungry, the mothers who want to see another adult, the youngsters who know they’ll have to educate themselves, the broken, the lost. We’re inside our palace for people. When we build palaces we show what we value. Carnegie gifted the library to Clydebank while it was still thronging with ship builders, industrial workers, the undereducated catching up. Wartime bombs didn’t kill it – austerity may.

The library gave me the addresses of literary magazines, agents, competitions. It gave me books when I couldn’t afford to buy them. It kept me warm and gave me strength before I went out into the rain and more people I could barely help, more tired faces. And, now and then I’d meet them, the old men, old women who had known their education had failed them. They went to the library and started at A – they took back their power and made it grow. They were always the ones who made ripples around them: started mothers’ groups, volunteered, supported addicts, advocated, built what they needed with their own hands. The light would shine from them, deep into their neighbourhoods.

In the 1990s I was writing with the disabled – the often ignored and demeaned. Get them writing, articulating their inner worlds and their happiness and power increased. (Although this was not always welcomed.) Human beings trapped in their homes could read and write their literal and figurative ways out, establish their humanity. Libraries were rare among buildings then – genuinely accessible. They were also warm when you couldn’t pay for heating and full of people who might not hate you. They offered information and groups you might join. I worked with prisoners who escaped into books, into writing. I met free men who had learned to read in prison, got degrees in prison.


"We’re all in here: the old and lonely, the hungry, the mothers who want to see another adult, the youngsters who know they’ll have to
educate themselves, the broken, the lost."


Now we have abandoned empathy, we may agree that criminals are born criminal and the poor are born poor. Close to our leaders are those who find eugenics appealing and so it’s fine if we let the disabled commit suicide, die of stress, or starve to death at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions. We never hear from them, so who cares? Prisoner-led literacy courses have been suppressed and less effective private courses imposed, paid for by the public purse. Prison libraries are now rendered inaccessible by lack of staff, lack of order, lack of books. We have already resisted an attempt to twist limits of books in cells beyond considerations of space into an imposition of mental deprivation. School libraries have become smaller, or have been removed from the schools of precisely those children who have no access to books at home.

But I’ve seen the joy of prisoners who wrote for disabled people and received writing in return, prisoners with a hunger for books and books and books empathising with people chafing against imprisonment in the world outside. I’ve seen the joy of human beings with severe disabilities, who have found themselves in print, considered capable of reflection, their words even read aloud to Social Work managers. I’ve seen the joy of pensioners sustained by poems they learned decades ago and poems they wrote yesterday. I have seen the joy of writers with their first book published, suddenly not just broke, just a single parent, just a lunatic. I’ve seen a tiny girl in a too-big uniform win a free book signed by the author in a school lucky dip and shiver all over with delight. She said, ‘Nothing this wonderful has ever happened to me.’ Then she smiled to bursting point and I was glad for her and tried not to cry. Why do we live in a world when a free book to have and read is an unlooked-for miracle? When did we agree to be made so appallingly poor?


The last refuge

Of course, closing libraries has a commercial effect on publishers and writers, but I am more concerned that it cripples our nation’s soul. The removal of libraries takes away one of the last refuges for fellow human beings who are being hounded to despair and death in our own communities. It isn’t easy to fight back, but in Essex and many other places we have. Essex is an area not renowned for flexible and compassionate thinking or creativity, yet it boasts the highest number of reading groups per head of population of any English county. After mass borrowing, petitioning, tying ribbons to trees, demonstrating and agitating, our libraries are ‘safe’ for five years. Their safety doesn’t include adequate funding for buildings or staff. The fight goes on. It isn’t easy. We didn’t think it would be.

Perhaps the only good thing to emerge from all this misery has been an opportunity to appreciate again the deep links between human rights, legality, creativity, art and democracy. We never did need to apologise for writing, for being writers. We always did need to defend writing, writers, readers, people, the lives of people. In an age of ecological collapse, a recyclable, reusable asset should be lauded, surely. Our books are precisely that.


"In an age of ecological collapse, a recyclable, reusable asset
should be lauded, surely. Our books are precisely that."


We are all human, but we can all forget to be humane. Our libraries help us to keep our forgetting at bay. Beneath the joy, the fun, the drama, the sweet shock of newness and serendipity that libraries offer, they tell us, over and over, to remain humane. They keep us as safe as they can, then send us home with dignity. We cannot risk the absence of one library, one child never reached, one life never achieving its potential. A poem isn’t worth more than a baby. A story isn’t worth more than an X-ray machine. The writing and the reading are there to remind us – save the life, save the life, save it even if the life is just your own.

It won’t be easy, will it? It won’t be a small task – saving all the shelters for our people and our books. But we have no alternative. There is a strange comfort, sometimes, in having no alternatives. There is power in saying we must do this to survive.

This article was originally published in the winter 2019 issue of The Author.

Illustration © cirodelia / Adobe Stock

About A. L. Kennedy

A. L. Kennedy has written prize-winning novels, short stories, non-fiction, children’s books and extensively for radio, stage, TV and film. Her next collection of short stories, We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time, will be published in 2020. Her website is www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk.