An Ode to Public Libraries

This week I am diverting slightly from theory to make a more personal post. On Friday (27th January) we took a trip to Senate House library to see the fascinating ‘Radical Voices’ exhibition.My talk with Dr Jordan Landes, the History librarian, really opened my eyes to the way large libraries can be radical spaces. Senate House has a large collection of radical materials, from placards to pamphlets, in their archive and there are many other collections of radical and protest materials in university and reference libraries across London, and the rest of the country.

The fact that these collections exist is fantastic but I couldn’t help thinking that their existence means we overlook a national institution that I believe is equally radical ,if not more so, than any collection of socialist workers party leaflets. The public library.

In my eyes there is no public institution more radical than the public library, even if it is difficult to start a protest in there, for fear of being shushed by the librarian.

One such project in London which I find most relevant is the Quaker Homeless Action mobile library, which has been running since 1999. The group provides a mobile library service to people with no fixed abode, whose situation means they are unable to apply for a library card. It is this kind of action that makes public libraries so radical, that they are able to be egalitarian and offer a valuable service to everyone in society, and it is on this principle that libraries were first founded.

Public libraries in Britain have a long and colourful history. Since they were established at the end of the nineteenth century they have been central to the lives of many people, young and old, and their story is fascinating. They are founded on the back of  the Victorian passion for education, the principles of utilitarianism  and not to mention, the fear of a working class uprising.(Hamby et.al.1999,pp.74-78)

Libraries are, in essence, a necessary part of any country that calls itself a democracy, because they grant every citizen equal access to an education, both intellectually and culturally ( Huzar,2014,p.2) and that access is a radical thing to offer.

But our public libraries are losing funding ,closing  and losing paid staff at an unprecedented rate and this is a worrying state of affairs. Luckily there are thousands of volunteers willing to step up and help out their local institution but this can only go so far, and a real change is needed to employ permanent staff and increase the library collections so that future generations can experience them as well.

I will admit that I am biased in my passion for the public library. I grew up with a parent that worked as a library assistant, so as a child, we visited regularly. The local library was akin to a second home and  without it I would never have had access to the history books that I would plough through, meaning I may never have made it to where I am today without it.

However, in a world where knowledge and expertise seems increasingly frowned upon, and where the President of America openly admits that he does not read books, I feel we need libraries,and the joy of culture and learning that they inspire, more than ever.

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