There were a group of us waiting for the library to open one weekday maybe a month ago. There was a slight drizzle in the air and we were a huddle under the front awnings; myself, an elderly couple and a young father with his pre-teen son.
Another chap came across the road to join us, rather posh English accent and he regaled us with “What a great sight to see; folk queuing to get into the library. There’s hope for us all yet!”
We returned his beaming smile and understood, I think, what he meant.
On returning from self-imposed and work-related exile in England a few years back, almost the first place I sought out was the library in this wee Lothian sea-side town.
I did this due to some deep social instinct which I find difficult to explain. You either believe in communities or you don’t. I guess I wanted to ‘take the measure’ of this little town that was to become my home.
I knew a little about its social demography. There’s slightly poorer folk living on one side of it than there is down the other (one end has a boating and kayak club, the other a Wimpy and an amusement arcade). There are twee little shops on the high street which would stretch the average JSA payment to its very limit and café’s that offer more organic plum chutney and feta than a roll and square sausage (and not a notion of brown sauce anywhere).
The pubs are the same. Some you’d go for the karaoke, others you can take your dog and your children in and chat about portfolios or graphic design over a quirky jam-jar of Shiraz.
But, libraries don’t work in this way and neither should they, but there’s a danger that they will if doomed to be volunteer run. Libraries should be as they are – ‘classless’. I can just as much go into Portobello Library and borrow a DVD of Luis Bunuel’s ‘Belle de jour’ as I can ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or a Take That CD.
There are lads and lassies from the local school over by the computer games who spraff in broad Lothian accents. There’s a couple of mornings when the cheery librarian fella will lead the wee sons and daughters of the maybe-more-well-to-do in song and laughter in the ‘book-bug sessions’. There are auld yins sitting at the tables at the back who meet every week maybe for a purpose maybe not. There are Eastern Europeans crowded around the computers maybe conversing on-line with those left back home. There are writer’s group’s and art groups.
The staff are friendly, helpful and have plenty of information to hand. They seem of the community and have plenty of local knowledge. They are paid to be local servants of this wee town, whosoever walks through the doors.
‘Volunteerism’ not only does away with a vital profession, for no better reason than it’s an easy target to cut, it threatens the very ‘egalitarianism’ that is so precious in a community such as this. ‘Volunteerism’ will make libraries like Victorian charities. The middle-classes will feel compelled to step in and run things and, like the sea-front cafes and bars, it’ll be by themselves and for themselves, no matter how well-meaning they may see themselves to be.