VftL are delighted to have a guest blog from Rebecca Front, BAFTA award winning star of The Thick of It. Rebecca explains why libraries are so vital for their communities (adapted from a piece originally published in The Guardian on 19th July 2006).
I find it hard to understand how anyone can fail to see that libraries are a great institution which deserves to be cherished. If someone said to you, “I know this place where you can go and hang around for as long as you like, browsing books, newspapers and magazines, using the internet, keeping out of the rain. And if you see a book you fancy, you can take it home – free. Take a few, why don’t you, and some CDs and DVDs while you’re at it. And then, when you’ve finished reading, and you’re fed up with them sitting around cluttering your shelves and gathering dust … you can take them back and swap them for something else”… you’d think that was pretty amazing, wouldn’t you?
And yet, when you ask people how often they visit a library – if indeed they belong to one – you discover that they regard it in much the same way as having a composting bin in the garden. It’s a great idea, you can’t fault it and, sooner or later, we might get round to trying it. So it’s no surprise that councils across the country are cutting back their funding, presumably working on the assumption that, famed as they are for their quietness, library users won’t make too much noise about it.
Well that part is wrong. Wherever there is a library under threat, there are dedicated groups of people trying to save it. But it hasn’t been enough to stop the rot. It seems to me that it’s the well-off middle classes who are letting the side down here. When you go into a local library, you find its user-demographic – as I believe our marketing friends would call it – is unusually broad. There are subscribers of every age, race and social group. But the smallest group – and I’m basing this on extensive and thorough research data compiled by me in my area, so don’t pay too much heed to it – seems to be the comfortably-off.
They’ll come in and borrow books for the kids, but for themselves, it seems, the lure of a pristine cover fresh from the shelves at Waterstone’s is too much. And these are the very people who ought to be the service’s most vocal champions. Well, let me see if I can tempt you back in.
First, put aside your guilt about that book you failed to return in 1975, and your anxiety that the fine, should you be caught, would be so great that your home would have to be repossessed to pay it. Libraries are generally pretty forgiving on lost books, though if they did start calling in those overdue fines, it could be the answer to the funding problem.
Second, though new books are pristine, and it’s good to feel confident that when you turn the page you won’t find it partially stuck down by somebody else’s nasal excretions, a little bit of dirt does you good, and I never heard of anyone dying from a library-related illness yet, did you?
Third, borrowing books gives you the opportunity to read and return all those things that you don’t want to have on display in your home. My son, when he was seven, developed a taste for hideously illustrated books about disease. A particular favourite was Warts and Verrucas. The cover for that, I could just about tolerate but when he brought home the lavishly photographed Conjunctivitis, I couldn’t wait for the return date, and was delighted when its photos of a suppurating cornea were taken out of the house for good.
A survey published a few years ago showed, depressingly, that the majority of Britons believed in putting their own interests ahead of the community’s. It doesn’t surprise me that people feel that way, just that they think such a credo is so socially acceptable they’ll admit to it in a survey. And it doesn’t bode well for The Big Society. But there are activities that serve both the individual and the community, and I can’t think of a better one than joining and using a library.
We all know that reading is the bedrock of knowledge and understanding. Playing fast and loose with free books for all seems to me to be akin to mucking about with the state education system. But, as with private education, the more people are willing to part with their money for something the state ought to provide to a high quality, the further the quality of state provision slumps. The only way to protect libraries is to use them as an adjunct to the book-buying habit that so many of us have acquired. And what a fabulously well-read nation we will be.