The one thing you should do today for tomorrow
How libraries represent the past – but also the future.
It’s been repeated to the point of cliché that football grounds are the new cathedrals, and for a quarter of a century I’ve attended, albeit with varying fervour, and carried the cross of my creed. Two generations after a Catholic married a Protestant, I was raised under no belief system that abdicated responsibility and power to the inexplicable, except the odd refereeing decision.
However, there’s a building in Bolton that inspired my devotion long before the ramshackle charms of Burnden Park, one which from pre-school age I visited at least once a week come shine or shower, impatiently dragging parent, grandparent or elder sister to the shrine, the place where I became something more than myself, where I attained a higher state of consciousness.
Breightmet Library opened in the 1930s, that great age of social provision despite recession. Typical of the time’s architecture and ethos, it was quietly grand without being overly fussy: well-wrought wooden doors opened onto a central rotunda in which footsteps echoed excitingly. Slipping past the vast, tastefully-curved wood of the reception desk, you were in a world of possibilities.
Through welcoming doors to the right was the Junior Library, a pleasant airy space through whose high windows the sun would floodlight flying dust. I knew every table. But by the age of 10 I had higher designs. Under the benign aegis of an overage relative, I would conduct a swap deal: for my child’s orange ticket I would get a precious green ticket, a passport to borrowing from the adult library and all the knowledge in the world.
So while sister Dawn would take a brain-break from A-level revision by rediscovering CS Lewis, I would solemnly search the darker, more mysterious adult library. Whatever I chose — whether an Ian Rush biography or The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — it would be cherished, handled with exaggerated care, and devoured with love.
I knew every inch of the place, every carved wooden shelf, every wrought-iron radiator, every mysteriously locked door. I knew which drawers were most temperamental on the card index system. I knew which chairs were most comfortable and which had the right amount of light spilling from the classical ceiling lights. I knew which tables afforded the most privacy if I wished to hide and hone my nascent writing skills, and which allowed a view of the comings and goings of a grateful general public in a place we knew was there for all of us.
They’ve closed that library now. Even by the 1980s they’d more or less abandoned the western wing, the former Reading Room on whose impossibly wide desks had been splayed the impossibly wide newspapers of the day. (At that point, the Bolton Evening News was still broadsheet. Now it’s tabloid, it doesn’t come out in the evening and it’s subbed by staff at its sister title over the moors in Blackburn.)
They haven’t abandoned the idea(l) of a library in Breightmet, and there’s a tidy little new one in the one-size-fits-all health centre up the road. This is how libraries are produced now: not as palaces of possibility but as grudging add-ons to other things, box-ticking exercises designed to sway public approval and planning permission by promising a room full of shelves under a tower block of one-bedroom flats. Balham Library’s bolted on to the side of a Somerfield.The former Breightmet Library stands empty and increasingly decrepit. It’s up for sale — don’t think I wouldn’t consider buying it if its pricetag didn’t reflect the ridiculous inflation that has infected the property market, although that’s another story. When a local businessman applied for permission to turn it into an upmarket Asian restaurant, a Facebook group in opposition quickly descended into appalling txt spk and casually vague worries about it becoming a mosque. Oh for a little freely available education.
And so we come to 5 February 2011, and libraries are under threat of closure as the government attempts to claw the country out of a recession brought about by idiotic spending on the unnecessary in the present without a thought for the future.We’ve already had widespread civil disturbance over the increasing cost of university attendance. It’s unlikely that bibliophiles will riot in the street — we’re (book) lovers, not fighters. But today is a day to go to your local library, to remind everyone that it is there, that you have the privilege and (currently) the right to extend your education whenever you care to.
I’ll be taking my nine-year-old kids. They may grumble at first — one’s on the Wii with a mate, having the kind of interactive fun we achieved with a football and chalkmarked goalposts; the other is watching a science documentary on Sky+, enjoying an instantaneous education without having to wait up for James Burke’s Connections. They may even point to the many bookcases that their father has filled. (I admit I may have a slight problem with book-buying, but it’s a better addiction than most and affordable to me in a way it never was to my loving parents — hence the mind-expanding trips to the library.)
But they’ll come to the library, because they’ve grown up with a love of books. I’m far from ashamed to say that they top their classes for literacy, because they have grown up sharing my love of language and knowledge. Mine was cultivated for free and has given me a life that, if not opulent, is comfortable enough to afford more books than my parents could imagine. Not everyone is as lucky, and we owe it to them to act today.You don’t have to fight for your right to education. You don’t have to storm barricades, chain yourself to railings or throw yourself in front of a horse. Just read and write. Go to your library and savour being able to borrow any book for free. Ask if they’re under threat (they almost certainly are: 400 branches are set to close, with hundreds of others suffering cuts), and if there’s a petition you can sign. Read and write. That’s what libraries gave us all the power to do. Don’t let anyone take it away.
Breightmet Library pictures from the Bolton Museum collection, except the last, which is an estate agent shot
Map and list of protests and events at libraries today. Do it.
Originally published at garyparkinson.blogspot.com on 5 Feb 2011.