Tuesday 21 August 2012

A Death in the Library - John Dougherty

Once, the first thing you saw as you came through the door would be a large semicircular counter behind which librarians would stand, dealing with customers or ready to help while others buzzed about busily from shelf to customer to desk. Before long, you’d know them - librarians and library assistants: skilled; knowledgeable; professional - by sight, at least, and they would recognise you, and exchange a pleasant word.

The bookshelves were tall enough that you’d have to reach up to the top shelf, and they filled up the library and were packed with books, so tightly you’d need both hands to squeeze browsed unchoices back into their places; and every time you came, there would be new treasures hidden on those shelves - here a book you’d been longing to read; there another you didn’t know you were looking for until you found it.

The children’s section, too, was bursting with the new and the old. Brightly coloured cushions in animal shapes invited you in and made you welcome.

There was life there. Then the council made its plans.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they ripped out the counter, leaving fade-marks on the carpet, and stuck up racks of battered DVDs: films you’d seen already, or didn’t want to.

 “We’re improving things,” they said, as they sent out redundancy notices, and hid the few remaining staff - or the volunteers who replaced them, or the temps brought in for the day from other branches - behind a small table round the corner.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they tore out the tall shelves and wheeled in small ones, four-tiered trolleys which still seemed suddenly too roomy for the few books that remained.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they inserted automatic tellers which check out your choices but never see your face or learn your name.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they hollowed out our libraries and left them to rot from the inside.
Now, the first thing to meet your eye is the trolley of old stock for sale. You can visit, browse, borrow without a single human encounter; when someone deals with you, it may be someone you have never seen before, and never will again. The gaps in the shelves gape like those in uncared-for mouths with diseased gums, and the forward-facing books do nothing to hide the decay. The brightly-coloured cushions have faded and sagged out of shape, and will not be replaced.

And one day, they will tell you that no-one uses libraries any more; and they will not ask themselves why that might be; and they will close and lock the doors forever.

Remember this, when they tell you they are investing in the community, and in the future.

Remember this, when they talk of their commitment to education; to driving up standards; to literacy and reading levels.

Remember this, when they stand on your doorstep, smiling and asking for your vote.


Katherine Langrish said...

Yes. I've noticed the process in our own library too. Automatic checkouts for library books. Fewer staff. More impersonal atmosphere.

Mystica said...

My only experience is from the Melbourne libraries and I think they are hoping to start automatic check outs there as well.

Lucy Coats said...

I SO wish we didn't have to keep on writing sad elegies for libraries, John. Wouldn't it be nice if we could write paeans of joy instead? One day, the destruction of our libraries will be seen as a great shame of the early 21st century. But of course, by then it will be too late.

Sue Purkiss said...

Very moving, and very true.

Neil said...

I too remember the pleasure of childhood visits to the library. The click and clonk of books being stamped were frequently the only sounds to be heard.

I was an advanced reader and the librarians knew both me and my ability. As such, I was permitted early entry to the adult book shelves.

I would spend hours (both as a child and later an adult) walking the aisles and discovering new books. The librarians would ask about the books I was returning and suggest others.

Now the library is noisy, understocked, stocked with old DVDs and apparently unmanned by humans. The Victorians would be angered to see what we have done to their legacy.

What society can call itself civilised if the leaders show such disregard for the wriiiten word and all books?

I agree this seems a long term plan to justify their closure, but perhaps they should heed a warning from the BBC. Michael Grade cut the budgets, etc for Dr Who as he wanted to get rid of it. Years on, where is he? Dr Who is now one of the biggest shows the BBC produces. Sometimes the worm fights back...

Catherine Butler said...

Very good post, and all depressingly true.

Shoo Rayner said...

Well I have to say the new, improved library in Coleford, in the Forest of Dean - (same County Council as John) is bright and busy with lovely books and staff that greet you warmly from behind their lovely counter - yes there's automatic too, but some people like that. There's a wonderful computer suite, where I recently ran a course on YouTube for business and where you can get a cup of coffee too.

It's moved to the right part of town- accessible to young families - and is doing well.

Entropy is such that not all things stay the same for ever. Life moves on and new things come to replace old, sometimes better, sometimes not, but sighing about past glory won't save libraries. You need to get people out there and using them. If they don't or won't then, sadly, it's time to move on.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - but I think part of John's point is that if you starve the library of cash till it becomes rubbish, then it's not going to be fun to visit and so people won't. So you create a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Sounds as if you're lucky enough to be living near a library where the reverse has happened...

Alan Wylie said...

A wonderful post john, sums up the whole bloody tragic affair!