The immanent closure of public libraries across the UK – part of the Conservative government’s slash and burn austerity measures – is unnerving to say the least. (Here’s a good video from the Guardian about the threat to libraries in North Yorkshire, not far from where I used to live in York.)
Even so, though much is (to be) taken, much abides. The potential cuts have caused a furor, which can be measured by commentary in the major newspapers and, in the realm of new media, by this metric: in recent days 4,371 people have added the hash tag #savelibraries to their tweets a total of 7,645 times. Earlier today, Glaswegian journalist Janice Forsyth tweeted:
In a book I’ve been thumbing through recently, Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles goes further, describing libraries (here, Harvard’s Widener Library) in Borgesian, almost transcendental terms: “In the stacks of the library (this or any other), I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make a model not for but a model of the universe.”
As I’m in the process of applying to library science programs, I’ve found the response to British library cuts, well, inspiring. Libraries are points of connection in communities and between them to the wider world of ideas, spaces that restore a culture to itself. To see them shuttered will mean deprivation, especially in already isolated and impoverished communities.
I focused on Twitter above because, via the actor Ben Crystal’s feed, I found a lovely essay his father, David Crystal, gave recently at Rhosneigr Library on Anglesey Island in Wales. The Crystals have day jobs, the younger as an actor and the elder as a linguist, but together they’ve made a cottage industry of their deeply nerdy love of Shakespeare. I have both their co-written books – The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005) is a lovely smallish (formerly called duodecimo, maybe) size, and usually sleeps on my bedside table for when I’m too tired to do anything but poke through something before losing consciousness. Among other factoids, you get images of the six genuine Shakespeare signatures left (he spelt his name no less than 5 different ways) and find out what to do to cure the curse if, for some dumb reason, you say “Macbeth” in a theater. Shakespeare’s Words (2002) is weightier, a glossary of over 14,000 words from Shakespeare’s works that’s an invaluable companion to the complexities of his vocabulary – it totally changed the way I read the plays when it explained that, as Shakespeare uses it, thou is actually an intimate form of address, you more formal. The relationship between Hamlet and his mother in the closet scene, for example, becomes much more richly colored when you’re looking for how they’re addressing each other changes throughout (especially once he puts a knife in Polonius).
Presumably, one or both of these books is available at your local library. In his essay, David Crystal gives us a commonplace book of quotations about the library’s value to communities, especially isolated ones like Rhosneigr. The full text is on his blog, but I’ll close with a nice bit:
I learned to read very quickly and, according to my mother, I was always reading. We couldn’t afford much by way of books, but the local library was only two minutes away. I got to know every inch of its children’s shelves, and steadily worked my way through them, using my allowance of two books per person per week. … And then there was the joy of ownership. A book was my book, even if it was due back at the end of the week. The words were mine. I was their master. Years later, when I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s Words (Les Mots), I was delighted and amazed. This was my story, too: “I never scratched the soil or searched for nests; I never looked for plants or threw stones at birds. But books were my birds and my nests, my pets, my stable and my countryside; the library was the world trapped in a mirror. … Nothing seemed more important to me than a book. I saw the library as a temple.” A temple indeed, but so much more. A library is a refuge, a second home, a leisure centre, a discovery channel, an advice bureau. It is a place where you can sit and draw the shelves around you like a warm cloak. Those who threaten any library service with cutbacks and closures are the most mindless of demons.