NOSTALGIA is the most dangerous of emotions, rose-tinted glasses lethal bits of kit.
Anyone of a library-protecting bent will have some kind of delightful childhood tale immortalising their local library. My own are of Ma Stewart taking me to the library every Saturday, without fail and on two continents.
I remember, age seven, devouring The Borrowers series as we were emigrating and I was deeply concerned they might not have books in Scotland. I couldn't leave without knowing the fate of the Clocks. I'm sure real friends were also said farewell to but, if so, I don't remember it. To great relief I found Arrietty snuggled on a shelf in the now-closed Coatbridge Library, a squarely symmetrical mansion, with steep stone steps.
Last year was the toughest of years for libraries with headlines concerning cuts and closures. There have been noises about lending services being moved into pubs and shops. Aberdeen City Council touted closing nearly half of the city's 17 libraries and scrapped its mobile book service. Funds have been cut for new books, opening hours reduced, remote libraries closed and mobile vans parked permanently.
Glasgow bucks the national trend: it is investing in books, online facilities and has upgraded community libraries, such as in Govanhill. It is no coincidence the city's libraries had more than five million visits last year.But here is a local councillor to trouble the waters: the SNP's David McDonald is agitating for food banks to be offered in local libraries, turning the lending service into Share Centres where residents can access goods and services, such as plumbers. "We need to look at how they can deliver a more effective service to users," he says, "There may be a need to support [libraries] to adapt." The sentiment is decent but libraries are for books. This seems to get lost in the argument for "partnership working" and "joined-up thinking" and a cafe in every public space.
Nostalgia's danger here is to make the argument for libraries an emotive issue. It is not. Against a backdrop of austerity, people cannot readily afford books, they need access to information – vital if people are to look for work or improve their skills. The case for libraries is so bluntly obvious that it seems daft to repeat it and so we verge towards the sentimental and risk being dismissed by budgeting bureaucrats. A library is a local authority's statement of values. Libraries are not community centres, they are not mere buildings, they are collections.
Economically, things will get better. We have to hope things will get better, the economy will recover, and then what? If our libraries are downgraded to the status of community centres will they be left as they are or will there be a phased withdrawal of non-book services? The idea of filling our libraries with extra, non-literary facilities to protect them from the current climate is building a Thames Barrier when sandbags will do. This is crayon politics.
Our young people will grow up thinking libraries are internet cafes or benefit services with books as byproducts. They will miss libraries as time travel machines and escape hatches, homes for friends and heroes, givers of comfort and knowledge, challenge and pride. But there, see? I'm just being emotional again.
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