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.