Like most writers, I owe a lot to libraries. From the little mobile library that did the rounds near my house when I was learning to read, to the British Library where I researched my novel, libraries opened up my world.
They’re some of the last truly open, democratic places. You can walk into a library when you need time to think, advice, directions, or just to use a computer (not everyone has one, believe it or not). And that’s before you even get to the shelves of books. I’ve used libraries while looking after a neighbour’s kids (where else can you sit and read a story without paying for anything?) and as a library volunteer with Southwark Libraries, helping out at Homework Club.
This latter experience brought home how vital they are, as places where children who may not have either space or peace at home can come to study. I talked to four-year-olds learning to read, and sixth-formers applying to medical school. I helped children working on everything from maths to Spanish, English literature to chemistry. And I saw how endlessly patient and knowledgeable the librarians were, taking every query calmly and in their stride.
So to close a library is a serious business. According to reports, almost 350 libraries have been closed over the past six years, with thousands of librarian jobs being cut. Close to home, this has prompted an extraordinary nine-day occupation of Carnegie Library at Herne Hill, which was closed with a dubious future as a librarian-free ‘healthy living centre’. Lambeth Council has promised it will remain a library when it reopens next year, in the sense of having books on the premises – but a library without a librarian is a poor substitute.
One gets the feeling the council was taken by surprise by the strength of feeling that led to the occupation. I was, too. But perhaps I shouldn’t be. Our shared public spaces are being squeezed, wherever we look. Dreams are made, futures are forged in libraries. Take away our libraries and our liberty may follow.
For the latest on the Carnegie occupation, see http://defendthe10-lambeth.org.uk/.