RECENTLY I read a collection of interviews with librarians, reflecting on their careers. One was still remorseful, 50 years on, about the way children were treated. His first job was in Dunfermline and the head librarian insisted he tell youngsters wanting to look at books that they must wash their hands. All they did, of course, was go outside and rinse them in a puddle. His shame was matched only by lingering resentment at how unwelcome the same librarian had made him as a child.

Today, librarians fall over themselves to entice and keep young readers. How out of step, then, that in the state secondary school sector, an environment in which you would expect learning to be revered, the words library and librarian are in danger of joining dodo as a definition of extinct.

In the space of five years, the number of specialist library staff in schools has fallen by nearly one-third, from 336 in 2011 to 240 last year. In Argyll and Bute, all have been axed. Falkirk has drastically reduced its number and East Renfrewshire, once lauded for its school library service, has reduced provision by half. None of those areas, you will note, is famous for millionaires. And while pupils’ backgrounds and circumstances are irrelevant to this issue, which is a matter of principle, it is nevertheless telling that, in places where qualified custodians of books are indubitably needed, they are being sliced away like salami.

The signal this sends about the status our public administrators accord to reading and learning could not be more dismal. School librarians are a soft target, their vanishing all but invisible to voters unless they have children in an affected school. Even then, many families have no comprehension of what a librarian and library can do for their child, or the impact they can make on quality of life.

Councils pick on those services whose loss will cause least rumpus; in the short run, that is. Long-term, the effect is incalculable. Put it this way: this country will one day have to face up to the consequences of a population whose education has been diminished, where a culture of intellectual inquiry has been hog-tied, and respect for the life of the mind, and for higher thought, treated with contempt.

No doubt there is some appreciation of this parlous situation in the concrete bunker of Holyrood. Certainly, when faced with these troubling figures, an official emphasises that the Government is powerless to influence the way councils allocate their budgets and where they make their cuts. Really? Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate come to mind. Destroying a pivotal school resource is a stain not only upon the conscience of councils that treat them with disdain, but also, equally, on the Government. It cannot wash its hands of it. This diabolical cultural revolution is happening on its watch.

It is not enough to disclaim responsibility or to point to other initiatives, such as the First Minister’s reading challenge, that young people can avail themselves of. And do not for a nanosecond think that occasional author visits or class trips to book festivals plug the gap. School is where children are sent to be educated and access to books on and outwith the curriculum is fundamental to that.

A school without a library is like a pub without beer. It does not deserve the name and those who go there will remain parched. Neither is it acceptable to ask teachers or volunteers to stand in for qualified librarians. Readers are not like customers in a charity shop. They do not need someone to stick on price labels and tidy up but a professional with the knowledge to direct investigation, spark enthusiasm, ignite imagination. Interestingly, some fee-paying schools appreciate and make a selling point of this.

Loretto, Scotland’s oldest boarding school, for example, takes pride in its custom-built library, which is open from 7.30 in the morning till nine at night. Only in a boarding school are such hours possible, of course, but the emphasis it puts on this shows a willingness to cherish the library ethos, even in an institution famed for sport.

No matter what digital geeks will tell you, there’s nothing old-fashioned about a library. As the dangers of fake news escalate, where better to learn what sources are trustworthy, or how to tell the reliable from the bogus, the meretricious from the merit-worthy?

Where, between French lessons and gym, can one more easily find unbiased, informed advice on the best writing on any subject, be it transgender fiction, the refugee crisis, or how to tell a blue-tit from a bald eagle? And what more effective medium for creating a climate that actively encourages intellectual vigour and originality, in which young people are allowed to be quiet, concentrate, and think for themselves?

The difficulty the SNP has found in narrowing the attainment gap between the well-off and the less advantaged can surely be traced in part to librarians’ pay-offs. Could there also be a direct correlation with the marked decline in standards of reading, science and maths? Otherwise it seems an awfully big coincidence that, for instance, national reading levels hit a new low after 2012, the very same period in which librarians began to be swept away.

You don’t need a microscope to see that a decade of worsening school results goes hand in hand with the demise of school libraries. This unholy alliance does not inspire faith in Holyrood’s ability to create and sustain an over-arching educational policy capable of tackling councils’ misplaced priorities, and broadening the minds of those in charge of budgets who undervalue libraries and enlightenment.

With our educational tables tobogganing downhill, it makes no sense to allow councils to remove the wherewithal to improve basic literacy, let alone foster academic attainment. It is, indeed, profoundly worrying to realise that they can actively undermine the Government’s goals. Cuts like these are to the disadvantage of all, now, next week and in years to come.

When today’s pupils are in charge of the country, raising families, running industry and technology, what happens when they turn a mental page and find it blank? What world will they bring their children into if they have been led to believe that books and knowledge are an optional extra, their purpose nothing more than escapism? To be honest, I don’t even like to imagine.