Amazon Kindle, Basil Spence, Books, E-Book, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh University Library, Enlightenment, Financial Meltdown, General Reader's Ticket, Leith Walk, Library, Mariella Frostrup, National Library of Scotland, Opinion, Politics, Public Library Funding, Public Spending
Last week, Tychy bade adieu to Edinburgh’s National Library of Scotland, after my three-year reader’s ticket finally expired. A legal deposit library since 1710, the NLS levies its own unique tax upon British publishers – a single copy of everything which they publish – with the consequence that the library now houses the entire modern literature of the nation. Over the last two years I have enjoyed unhindered access to this national collection under false pretences. I had obtained the reader’s ticket in 2007 on the understanding that I would be completing a PhD in American literature. The PhD was soon abandoned, but I continued to appear daily in the library’s reading rooms rather like an old boy frequenting his gentlemen’s club.
Whilst around me, professional researchers would be pouring through their reports and statistics – which they had doubtlessly flown in from faraway universities to consult – I would be giggling over Wordsworth Classics editions of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. When ordering materials via the library’s delivery system – materials which would be retrieved from gigantic Batman-style underground cavern networks and driven at top speed to the reading rooms for me to consult – I would always include a few numbers by Kant and Hegel amongst the comics to assist the impression that I was still a practising academic.
Perhaps I could be distinguished from the intelligentsia by the fact that when I was not sufficiently entertained, I was usually asleep – visibly and noisily asleep, with my nose pointed up like a gravestone, my mouth a gaping black circle and snoring in the same grinding tenor as a tractor trying to get up a hill. Or so I imagine – for all I know, I could have been sleepwalking extravagantly around the reading rooms, strutting and jiving in front of the horrified academics. I would typically awake to find that I had dribbled all over one of the nation’s literary treasures and that those around me were glaring furiously. How amateurish!
Or maybe there were other impostors. My favourite game was to check out the History tabs on the library computers (which are intended strictly for research) and discover some of the rather eyebrow-raising websites which previous users had consulted. Those professors and scholars must only access gaydar.co.uk when nobody is looking.
I cannot promise that the quality of Tychy’s literary criticism will be unaffected by the indignity of being tossed out into the street, to take my place again amongst the literary peasantry. Those reviews of long out-of-print books and investigative studies of forgotten authors are now perhaps an indulgence of the past. Yet in recent weeks, as I faced being expelled from this Eden, I started to look about for possible alternatives – public libraries where I could potentially establish myself in exile.
Before the NLS, Tychy was quartered in the University of Edinburgh’s library in George Square, which – despite the recent £60 million attempt to polish the turd – still stands as a stunning example of Basil Spence’s Concrete-Gothic aesthetic. Combining the ominous grandeur of a medieval cathedral with the dankness and desolation of a nuclear bunker, this library’s luxurious expanses of open-access shelving made it a truly magical place to explore. The privacy of the ancient wooden desks and the inability of the librarians to enforce their no-food-and-drink policy also meant that one could study whilst enjoying a can of Guinness and a fish supper.
When it comes to the libraries available today, however, the pickings are slender. Admittedly, the presence of a legal deposit library in Edinburgh allows the others to jettison their stock and maintain that copies of the lost books are still available in the NLS (the Edinburgh University library was particularly guilty of this). Yet I recently undertook an expedition to the McDonald Road Library in Leith, and I can honestly say that I have never visited a building with fewer books in it. I was searching for information about Otto Von Bismarck in preparation for delivering a history tutorial, but this task soon became like trying to squeeze blood out of a rock. To add insult to injury, after leaving the library the first thing which I encountered was a gigantic billboard image of Mariella Frostrup, which the causal observer may have assumed was a shampoo advert, but which was actually promoting the Book Show on Sky TV. The immaculate Mariella loomed over Leith Walk, a negligent angel of literature for these book-impoverished streets.
Figures on the Perkins blog attest that in “net” terms Edinburgh’s libraries have haemorrhaged 144,000 books over the last ten years (a small library holds between 10,000 and 20,000 books) and that this forms part of a nationwide loss of 17 million books. Although a public inquiry last November found that Wirral council had been “in breach of its statutory duties” when planning the closure of eleven libraries in its care, the public library faces an uncertain future in these deficit-busting times, with commitments from the relevant minister Margaret Hodge to maintain their funding (I do not know if there is a Scottish equivalent) being qualified by an anxiety to invest the library with a broader social purpose than merely providing readers with books – such as boosting literacy levels, acting as the “heart” or “hub” of a community, or delivering pseudo-social care for the elderly.
The fashionable policy wonk line is that just as Victorian public baths became obsolete once the majority of homes were installed with running water, so the public library is rendered increasingly unnecessary now that most people have regular access to information in their own homes via the internet. Moreover, internet bookshops such as Amazon and an emerging mass-market in E-books allow any consumer to cheaply stuff their home libraries with more books than they can ever hope to read. It had previously struck me as an injustice that so many of the books which I had purchased to research my aborted PhD in American literature (The Frontier Mind, American Humor, The Mind of the South) had been once owned by American public libraries, but were now in the hands of a foreign scholar rather than the communities whose histories they explored.
The policy wonks are in danger of ignoring both the narrow argument that a significant minority still lack access to the internet and the wider point that the library remains the only civic space dedicated to reading, learning, and enlightenment. As was perhaps suggested recently by a threat from Edinburgh University students to keep their library open for twenty-four hours by holding mass sit-ins, the average home is often inhospitable to reading and studying. To portray libraries as resource centres, however, is maybe a little misleading. The list compiled by Public Lending Right of the most borrowed library books of 2009 conveys a diet of sheer comfort food: the most thumbed books of 2009 were overwhelmingly crime, romance, and horror novels – James Patterson’s Sail was #1, and there was not a single non-fiction book in the top 100.
The public library is not necessarily a black hole which gobbles up public money – with more people presently visiting libraries than attending cinemas and football matches, many libraries could potentially raise significant amounts of advertising revenue. And despite the current economic horrors, there remains great potential for a renaissance in public libraries. The very people who will use libraries regularly are likely to be those most repulsed by a miserly stock of books, or the sense that their literature is being rationed. Whilst any Starbucks knows that they need to create a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere if they wish to attract patrons, the reading areas of most public libraries still resemble dentists’ waiting rooms, complete with staff who address the visitors as if they have just arrived to claim their dole money. Tychy will probably end up reading his Kindle on the Meadows this summer, albeit grimly aware that Edinburgh’s public libraries need a new vision, ambitions, and champions.