LIBRARIES: the high water mark of civilisation, the cradle of knowledge, the proof that humanity – despite war and genocide and Eastenders – is fundamentally a fine and aspirational thing.
Libraries: the place I read my first Where’s Wally book, on the floor of Denby Dale district branch; the same place I did teenage work experience after deciding words were for me; the same place too I sat typing CVs because my father refused to believe computers were more than a passing fad.
Libraries: 14 to shut in Sheffield during our austerity age.
A travesty. A tragedy. A train crash policy. So say 7,000 people who have signed a petition opposing the cuts. And only an ill-educated unempathetic philistine immune to the plight of the underprivileged would argue differently, right?
Hm. Allow me to have a go anyway.
See I rather reckon, in 2013, there is no need for Sheffield to have 27 separate libraries; I rather reckon, if we took a moment to look beyond Victorian sentimentality, we would see maintaining such a resource in such numbers is an outrageous waste of public money; I rather reckon, ultimately, Sheffield City Council is right to prune the service.
Which probably won’t be an entirely popular view.
So be it. Because, quite simply, if those libraries did not already exist in those suburb, no-one today would demand them built. They are a relic from an age before car and computer were common.
This is reflected in declining use. Only 29 per cent of adults accessed libraries regularly in 2009 according to official stats. That’s falling too. Libraries are used less and less. Which surely means it is entirely legitimate to consolidate the service; to shut some branches; to expect them to adapt.
That doesn’t mean encouraging ignorance or isolating those who cannot afford to travel to borrow a book; it means coming up with fresh ways to provide relevant resources.
How about offering free public transport to those using the service? Or stocking school libraries with books youngsters actually want to read, and opening them in the evenings and at weekends?
How about, in suburbs left without a library, setting up computer suites in existing buildings with each machine providing internet and printing services as well as access to an online catalogue of books which can be ordered and posted to a convenient address? Those suites could even be set up in the back rooms of local businesses. They get a rent boost, the council saves cash, and the fundamental provision of a library – access to knowledge – is effectively provided.
How about getting someone to seriously look at these possibilities and more besides?
Because, ultimately, when Jorge Luis Borges noted he ‘imagined paradise will be a kind of library’ he wasn’t suggesting Heaven might look like the Woodseats branch; he was saying that access to knowledge is joy itself.
It is, too. But in 21st century Sheffield there are surely better ways of providing that than through 27 under-used and over-costly suburban libraries dating back to the Fifties.