Libraries and the life of the body

Photo by Gregory Bodnar
Photo by Gregory Bodnar

In my third and final blog on public libraries before the election, I want to deal with an obvious yet overlooked aspect of the library and why we still need it: Libraries are places, housing physical books and sheltering people of flesh and blood.

It is this truth, until recently accepted as an unquestionable good, that is partly responsible for the dismantling of the national library network now in progress.

The digital age brought with it a new but widespread assumption: when books can be obtained with a few clicks and information accessed online from home, school or on the move, a building which you can visit to consult physical books becomes superfluous. Seth Godin summarises this view succintly: the library is a warehouse for books and a house for the librarian, designed to meet the requirements of an older, pre-digital society.

It’s a view that very much expresses the excitement of the first flush of the digital revolution, when its proponents proclaimed the arrival of a brave new world in which information, liberated from the shackles of location, could flow freely.

Lefties wanting to make an economic link – thank you, Adorno – might put this technological change in the context of late capitalism, diagnosing a shift towards a greater level of abstraction which makes it easier to see production, and therefore humans, as units of capital. With so much of life now lived on screen and conducted by machines capable of processing amounts of data beyond the limits of human biology, it’s tempting to think that we have finally transcended the body.

When it comes to libraries, this fantasy of transcendence means that we’ve risen above the need to tramp (in the rain, if you’re in Manchester) to your local library, as my great-great-grandfather did a century and a half ago at the beginnings of the public library movement. Translated into policy, it makes it easier for councils to justify closing over a third of libraries in the last seven years, with more cuts to come. It’s no coincidence that the 2015 election party manifestos, in the few mentions they make of libraries, tend to focus on promises to extend broadband rather than keep buildings open.

But despite everything the digital age has brought us, we remain embodied beings, with a need for knowledge and culture in its physical form. My local library in Upper Norwood was a pertinent reminder of this over Easter. Heaving with bodies of different ages and sizes, it hosted young children wanting an outing with a educational focus, teenagers needing a quiet place to revise for their GCSEs, and acted as a central venue for a community liaison event run by the local police.

Councils are missing crucial something when they ignore this, the importance of library-as-location in the heart of the community. Libraries are not just about access to information; they are places to go and to be that are specific to the areas in which are placed. They have a distinctive atmosphere and purpose that cannot be replicated in cafes or hired halls, or substituted by an ‘online experience’. In order to feed the mind, libraries must first meet the needs of the body.

Closing libraries an ‘attack on the soul of the country’

5405303830_4062d80a7b_mThe measure of a society is how it treats its libraries. ‘It just strikes me as something a nation can boast about – we lend people books for free,’ says James Brown in a swelte little anthology I’ve been reading called The Library Book, borrowed from my local, threatened
Upper Norwood Library.

Library services have been the low-hanging fruit of the recession. Over a third of UK libraries have closed since 2008, with councils blaming cuts by central government. Since library services aren’t ring-fenced, the 1964 legislation imposing an obligation on councils to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ has done little to protect them. Central government lays the responsibility at the door of councils: culture minister Ed Vaizy has an impressive track record of inaction, ignoring a number of local communities’ requests for intervention.

The 2015 budget has been even more revealing about government priorities. In an upbeat speech citing Britain’s rising fortunes, the chancellor announced a series of military giveaways: £7.5 million for events commemorating the two world wars, £2.5 million to renovate the RAF museum in Hendon and £1.3 million to rebuild a WWI airbase at Chelmsford. A further million has been set aside to rescue the Battle of Britain chapel at Biggin Hill from closure by the MoD.

Funding for the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, described by Osborne as the defeat of ‘an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists … well worth the £1 million we will provide to celebrate it’ sounds like blatant flag-waving.

Put that against the sums involved in running libraries – for £283 000 a year you get seven libraries in Cardiff – and you feel like putting in a Freedom of Information request to find out the size of the government’s firework budget for the war celebrations.

Whatever the result of the election, for libraries things are only going to get worse. The next round of cuts will bring more closures, even if Labour gets into (some) power. In a recent Twitter conversation shadow culture minister Chris Bryant avoided any kind of commitment, making vague noises about having a ministerial chair for the libraries task force and implementing the Sieghart Report.

Even the Greens seem to be part of the do-nothing political consensus about libraries. In response to questions from Leon Bolton, culture spokesman Martin Dobson conceded the party had little in the way of policy on libraries, despite the fact that Green Party supporters are often fervent library campaigners.

Do the politicians know what they’re doing? The decade 2008-2018 (the year when the current deficit-focused spending plans end) will see the dismantling of the national network of libraries that has put free books and a quiet place to read in the heart of every community. As I wrote in my last blog, this kind of provision hasn’t been in place very long: the public library movement that our Victorian forebears began only came to fruition with the 1964 Act. That it should have lasted so short a time and be extinguished so soon makes me sad.

It also calls to mind something else I read in The Library Book, this time from Manic Street Preachers lyricist Nicky Wire: ‘Ridding our villages, towns and cities of libraries, which are essential in shaping a nation’s consciousness, seems like a direct attack on the soul of the country.’

Free Public Libraries! We’re all Victorians now

Photo by Rich Grundy
Photo by Rich Grundy

The past is closer than we think. It’s easy to forget that public libraries haven’t been around that long. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 gave councils the right to establish free libraries in their areas. But many obstacles had to be overcome before the legislation of 1964 imposed on councils a statutory obligation to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ enabling the likes of you and me to go to a building in our local area and come away with a stash of fresh reading matter.

I’m particularly aware of this because my great-great grandfather, Thomas Greenwood, was a leading figure in the Victorian public library movement. In the 1880s, despairing of the fact that fewer than 50 libraries had opened across England, he published an influential manual on how to set up and run a public library. The preface to ‘Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses, and Management’ argues that every community should have a public library because ‘Book hunger presents a demand as clear, as definite, as the cry for good drainage and good water’.

A social reformer typical of his age, Greenwood was making the point that access to knowledge and culture were essential for a member of a civilised society. Surviving and thriving was not just about the body; mind and spirit needed feeding too. In the late nineteenth century, this kind of thinking still involved breaking new ground: education (until the age of ten) was only made compulsory in 1880. My great-great grandfather’s call for public funding for libraries – ‘a penny on the rates’, as he put it – met with fierce opposition from his conservative contemporaries. Being obliged to pay for books for the poor, they felt, amounted to theft through taxation.

Reading his book while doing some research into my nonconformist ancestors, I was struck by how little, a century and a quarter on, things have changed. Of course, there is now a social consensus that libraries, rather like motherhood and apple pie, are A Good Thing.

But in real – that’s to say, political and financial terms – public libraries have become one of the battlefronts of the Great British Recession. They were among the first areas to suffer cuts; I remember reporting on reductions to library services back in 2008. Their prominence in lists of proposed cuts caused some to wonder whether councils considered them soft targets, at least until they discovered that communities were prepared to create uproar to save them.

Some seven years on, over a third of libraries in the UK have closed. But it’s a statistic, as Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News points out, that fails to convey the extent of the decline in the service.

‘The number of libraries being closed is actually misleading – the battle for library buildings has been won,’ he says. ‘The battle against hollowing out what lies in those buildings is being lost. And, all the while, those who have never used libraries are less and less likely to go in and use them, or are turned off when they do, due to lack of investment and promotion.’

The results is a reduction in the numbers of libraries users which helps to justify further cuts. One piece of recent research found that the number of people visiting a library a year had fallen by 40 million over the past four years, a sharp decline that is particularly marked in deprived areas.

‘Investment in staff and books are being continually scaled back,’ adds Anstice. ‘This means that English libraries are a pale imitation of the wonders seen in other countries such as the USA, Australia or in Scandinavia where library usage is as high as it has ever been.’

Ironically, de-investment in libraries has involved a huge investment of time and energy from both sides. Yet the savings seem disproportionate to the costs – the recent, defeated proposal to close seven of Cardiff’s libraries would have saved only £283 000. A lot of money to you and me, but peanuts out of a total budget of £547 million. And what was the cost of all the meetings and documents that went into proposing cuts that won’t happen?

Why is so much effort being poured into the preservation/ dismantling of the library service? Part of the answer, I think, must be that The Battle for Britain’s Books is about more than saving money or buildings. It’s about a shared understanding that as a society, we have got to a point where everyone has the right to participate fully in the cultural life of the nation. In other words, everyone has the right to a life of the mind.

And if you have access to experiences beyond your own – other people’s ideas, histories, stories, values, the key word here is ‘other’ – might you start to question those of your own society, to consider how things could be different, better? For there is something inherently counter-cultural about books: in the early days of printing, a person sitting alone reading was regarded with suspicion. In Britain, it took a religious as well as technological revolution to establish the principle that people had the right to read the scriptures for themselves.

Historically and globally, books seem to incur a kind of iconoclastic rage. Think the destruction of Buddhist texts in twelfth-century India, of libraries in World War II and of books in Iraq’s Library of Mosul by Islamic State earlier this month. Here are some depressing highlights of what authorities through the ages have done to destroy books.

I offer this as a thought rather than a thesis, and I’m certainly not accusing council politicians or officials of burning books. But it’s important to recognise that in the book battle of our time, wider forces at work than the size of budgets and books as physical objects. These days I better understand the connection between my great-great-grandfather’s nonconformity and his campaigning for public libraries and I’m proud of what he did. He was striving to create ‘free’ libraries in more than one sense.

So let us remember: as the ancestors of the near-future, we need to make those who come after us proud.

Laws for nature: the Nature and Wellbeing Act


It’s Christmas. It’s also, as is often remarked, a festival of other ‘c’ words such as consumerism and consumption. It’s what happens when capitalism meets the need, which has probably existed as long as human societies, for bit of a midwinter party, a distraction from the cold and the dark. It’s a time when the outside world retreats, and the human world takes over as we huddle together around fires, real, artificial and televisual.

As 21st century people, this midwinter forgetting of nature is part of a wider forgetting in which the natural world is increasingly being sacrificed to commercial interests. Last year’s State of Nature report gathered the grim statistics: over 60% of the species tracked over the past half century are in decline. And, as George Monbiot points out, the limited legislation that exists to conserve the natural world is now under threat from the corporate agenda.

But hope lies with a counter-movement. There’s a call for a new law which would put nature at the heart of decision-making. In the run-up to the general election, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB have joined forces to push for a Nature and Wellbeing Act in England aimed at not just protecting but recovering natural habitats and green spaces.

The case for the legislation is premised on the physical and mental benefits of nature, reminding us of our relationship with the environment that sustains us. But the policymaking context of contemporary Britain has tempted campaigners to go a step further and highlight its economic benefits; nature is now ‘capital’, an asset that should be protected.

And therein lies the rub. For, as the counter-movement of the counter-movement points out, making the argument in economic terms opens the way for seeing nature as just another resource to be exploited – precisely the approach that got us into this mess in the first place. The idea of natural capital puts campaigners on the horns of a dilemma: should they use whatever arguments they think will persuade policymakers, or should they maintain a purer position which casts them in the role of outsiders?

I saw the issue play out at last month’s New Networks for Nature conference when a panel featuring a Defra official and staff from conservation charities drew criticism from the audience for embracing the thinking of the natural capital argument rather than questioning it. For those on the side of the audience, the campaigning group 38 degrees have launched a petition calling for ‘natural capital’ to be dropped from the draft legislation.

Personally, I think I’m with Monbiot in putting this reservation aside in the interests of the more urgent priority of getting nature to figure more prominently on the political agenda. But taking that position doesn’t mean you have to forget that there are other ways of thinking about the natural world. In 2008, Ecuador changed its constitution to give nature rights. In doing so, it became the first country to recognise ecosystems as legal entities rather than merely as the property of humans.

The measure represents a paradigm shift in the thinking that has dominated the modern west. It’s not surprising that it comes from Latin America, where indigenous communities know the impact of human greed on the environment all too well. And now that shift in thinking is developing into a social movement which is rippling out from the Americas. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature is a worldwide network committed to the creation and enforcement of legal systems that protect the rights of nature. This year, its citizen-jurors have tried the first violations of the rights of nature at an International Rights of Nature Tribunal in cases which deal with oil spills, fracking and mining.

So, as the year turns once more, let’s remember the claims of the living world outside our brightly-lit, gift-stuffed living rooms.

Remembering differently: the centenary of World War One

From the blog The Secret Life of God
Poppies in south Gloucestershire 2014

2014 brings the centenary of the start of World War One, and the beginning of four years of national commemorations.

It’s telling that, in writing that sentence, I nearly typed ‘celebrations’ instead of ‘commemorations’. For the official discourse about the war has a triumphalist tone, one which perfectly expresses a nationalist narrative about the greatness of Britain, the infalliability of past decisions, and the value of the sacrifice.

This doesn’t sit well with me. Like most families in Britain, mine has its share of war stories: a mother evacuated as a young child, a grandfather destroyed by shell shock, and I’m aware that their effects are still rippling down through the generations.

I’m not alone in my unease about the official discourse. A website called ‘No Glory in War’ has been set up as a platform for alternative views of World War One; an open letter, signed by a host of creative luminaries such as Carol Ann Duffy and Jude Law, registers dissatisfaction with the government’s plans to spend £55,000,000 on commemorations aimed at rousing the ‘national spirit’.

Even before they’ve happened, the tenor of the centenary commemorations is uncomfortably familiar. For as long as I can remember, every Remembrance Day has carried the same emotional freight: gravity mixed with complacency, conveyed via a ritual of pomp and military parades.

And these 21st century days, the sacrifice of the soldiers fighting ‘necessary wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq has been added to the toll of the dead of the two world wars. It’s a remembrance that is accompanied by a curious forgetting of history, notably the role that Britain played in the shaping of the modern Middle East and its problems.

The conduit of the official discourse has mostly been the Church of England, with its provision of a Remembrance Sunday service and sermon interlacing the meaning of death and suffering with the significance of the two great wars, followed by a community standing silently around a cross.

It wasn’t until, attending a Unitarian service in the course of researching my book on the spiritual life of Britain, that I discovered it was possible to remember differently. There were no slogans, no doctrines in the minister’s thoughtful talk – just a suggestion that a quiet remembering would be more appropriate than the usual triumphalism, along with some acknowledgement of the difficult feelings about death that British society is so adept at avoiding.

That Remembrance Sunday, I came out of the dissenters’ church feeling that, for once, something real had been said, something that made sense in terms of my own, war-formed family.

So, next month, and for the next four years of intermittent war commemorations, let us not forget, but remember differently.