Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

(My earlier thoughts on the threat to UK public libraries can be found here or by, you know, scrolling down.)

It seems the outcry against public libraries closures in Britain is gathering focus: a national Save Our Libraries Day is planned for this Saturday, with protests planned around the UK. One protester will be Philip Pullman, author of the Golden Compass trilogy and, more recently, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. He, like the linguist David Crystal below, recently gave an impassioned speech to a local group in Oxford, transcribed on the anti-cuts website False Economy. Here’s an excerpt:

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea?
The council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers? This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers. But there’s a prize being dangled in front of these imaginary volunteers. People who want to save their library, we’re told, are going to be “allowed to bid” for some money from a central pot. We must sit up and beg for it, like little dogs, and wag our tails when we get a bit.
What I personally hate about this bidding culture is that it sets one community, one group, one school, against another. If one wins, the other loses.

Pullman carefully constructs his argument so it is clear that the winning community will be the more affluent one, with the time and resources to organize a funding bid and then staff a library with untrained volunteers, and the losing a less affluent community. Movingly, he imagines in this second community a young, low-income mother whose life is briefly made more bearable by “a weekly story session in the local library, the one just down the road. She can go there with the toddler and the baby and sit in the warmth, in a place that’s clean and safe and friendly, a place that makes her and the children welcome.” This isn’t an empty rhetorical strategy: public libraries here as there are a refuge for people exactly like Pullman’s imagined mother. I see them almost every time I return books to the Durham Public Library, an institution positioned in the middle of a poverty-stricken city uncertainly balanced between urban blight and modest development.

(Below the break, Pullman and I briefly part ways and ultimately reunite in Egypt.)

Pullman is at his most powerful when showing public libraries to be a refuge and a valuable community resource. He comes a bit off the rails when he goes into a digression about what he calls “the greedy ghost,” the free market fundamentalism that he sees as driving the cuts to public programs like libraries. Someone with this attitude understands profit, but “that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance.” Pullman goes so far as to invoke the ghost of Milton Friedman, founder of the Chicago School of economic thought followed by Thatcherites like David Cameron and Reaganites like [insert any Republican’s, and many a Democrat’s, name here].

Pullman’s digression is not unfounded, and only radical in a tweedy sort of way. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with him, and would refer anyone interested in similar arguments, couched in historical context and replete with data, to Naomi Klein’s brilliant polemic, The Shock Doctrine. My problem is that it’s a digression, a somewhat ill-advised one, and that it will only incense those who aren’t already converted to Pullman’s position. Like the speech’s purported addressee, Keith Mitchell, the leader of the Oxfordshire County Council – the man with the purse strings. Pullman’s anger is palpable, and must have played well to those gathered at the public meeting in Oxford. But the anti-free market ideas he propounds are divisive, though compelling – just the kind of ideas that reactionaries imagine (rightly) being available for the asking in quasi-socialist institutions like public libraries. Everything is written with an occasion in mind (an idea I borrow from the poet Thom Gunn), and to the occasion the writing must remain true. Pullman’s occasion here is, I think, fundamentally one of emotional appeal, and his observations about soulless free market economics and its infiltration of publishing are best saved for another moment. It momentarily gets worse before it gets better, though. His sketchy outline of this tendency in human behavior “to look for extreme solutions, absolute truths, abstract answers,” apparently rooted in our “psychological inheritance from our far-distant ancestors,” is frankly sloppy.

Fortunately, Pullman is far too clever to go completely out to lunch, and returns to his own early engagement with libraries:

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted!
And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

In a world where privacy is becoming even more complicated (as someone who lives in the Renaissance much of the time I cannot simply say “more complicated,” but I digress), it is this sense of libraries as public places of privacy that seems to be most resonant. Public libraries must be protected not just because they are the stewards of the world’s information, but because they are places of refuge, mental and physical. Economically, this may be a losing proposition; culturally, it is not. And so I close by panning to an altogether different situation: the new library in Alexandria – the third on roughly the same site since the first two burned in the 1st and 5th centuries CE respectively – is threatened again by unrest in Egypt. As some did around the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, people in Alexandria formed a human cordon around the Library’s entrance to prevent vandalism and looting. Writing about the situation on the New York Review of Books blog, Ingrid Rowland lucidly summarizes the value of libraries in words that resonate from Alexandria to Oxford to North Carolina:

Whatever Egypt is to become now, the Library of Alexandria is surely an essential beacon by which to guide it — in this city where the ancient world’s most powerful lighthouse, the Pharos, once blazed forth (its pink granite pieces are still immured in the scenic Qaitbey Fortress). The Library is not only a national— and international — symbol of civility, but also a safe refuge for private thoughts. From the moment it opened eight years ago, young Egyptians have crowded into its eight levels, all eight sharing a single roof — a place where solitary contemplation lives in evident harmony with collective will. As these same young people now stand guard over their library in these difficult but hopeful days, they are in fact standing guard for all of us.