Protect our libraries

Public libraries are usually the first to feel the cold blast of budget cuts. But in times of austerity they are needed more than ever, argues British author Jeanette Winterson, whose first novel was the acclaimed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Jeanette WintersonI was born in Manchester. Brought up in Accrington, 20 miles north-east. I was adopted by Pentecostal parents who wanted me to be a missionary. I’ve been doing my best ever since.

The Accrington Public Library was a stone-built, fully-stocked library built on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. Outside were the carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside were Art Nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained glass window that said useful things like Industry and Prudence Conquer.

The library held all the Eng Lit classics, and quite a few surprises like Gertrude Stein. I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so, staring at the shelves that said English Literature in Prose, A-Z, I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen…

I used to help out at the library. I was a rough tough kid, not much good at school. We had six books in our house but I had the library.  I loved that building – built for the working classes, built for me. I loved the sense of energetic quiet.

As our government tells us that this wrecked economy can’t afford to pay a living wage to the poorest people in society, what can we offer them when they are earning £6:19 an hour? They can take their kids to the park maybe. They might be able to go swimming or play sport at their leisure centre, find a football pitch.

It is just as important that there should be a library for kids with nowhere to go, kids who don’t have books or a room of their own, for stressed-out parents, for students needing a place to study and to think and find more than Google can offer, for older people who want a safe place outside of the house or old-age home, for community groups and reading groups, for lectures, for discussions, and of course for computer and IT.

Libraries are trying to offer as much as they can to the communities they serve, and particularly to those on low pay and with few resources, but there is confusion around the role of libraries – what they are, how they should change and develop, what place they have in a modern Google-based world where the book itself might be disappearing.

If we want libraries to flourish and take their proper place in a modern society, we can’t make them compete with sports centres for resources, replacing all their books with computer terminals.

Libraries have never been more inventive than they are right now. I went to Amsterdam to visit the new public library by the railway station. The ground floor is noisy and busy – people meet their friends, get coffee, sit and talk, read the vast selection of magazines, popular, political, esoteric – everything.  Lit-up glass escalators invite you further, into stacks of books with nice chairs where you can browse, then onwards into a huge DVD section.

There are dedicated computer floors of course, but also meeting rooms, events spaces, a café and a great restaurant. It is open early and late, seven days a week. The Dutch have the highest literacy rate in Europe.

Either we stop arguing and agree that libraries are doing their best to re-invent themselves and that with a bit of help – financial and ideological – they belong with the future, or we let them run down until they disappear because they become irrelevant to people’s lives.

That brings me back to books. As books themselves change, does it not follow that libraries will change too? If books are not necessarily objects, then perhaps libraries need not be either?

The wealthy will have books and access to books. The best universities will keep their magnificent libraries to be visited by those who can afford the fees. Is it downloads for everyone else? I want books to be visible not invisible. Hold a book in your hands and it is more than its content.

E-books are not an improvement; they are an addition. Libraries and publishers will come to an arrangement about e-book lending and that could work very well as a satellite service for library users. For kids in particular, e-books aren’t the answer. Early reading is physicality – the taste, smell, weight, the being of books.

As a child with no escape routes escape by the magic carpet of a book, I believe that children will suffer most if public libraries disappear. Poor children who are not reading will suffer most.

Who is going to pay for this new expanding network of libraries? Charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back-tax on their profits. A living wage would both raise the tax base and free up a lot of money now paid out through the system supporting low-wage earners. And no it won’t lead to mass unemployment. I’d like to employ more librarians for instance.

This is an edited extract from the Reading Agency inaugural lecture delivered by Jeanette Winterson. It is printed with her permission.


This article is from the March 2013 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.