Thursday, 5 May 2016

Saving books by Savita Kalhan

There is a scene in  The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam, which has always stayed with me. One of the characters, Qatrina, nails all her books to the ceiling in an attempt to save them from being discovered by the Taliban, who would have inevitably burnt them had found them. Qatrina reasons that no one would think to look up at the ceiling, and so the books would be saved.

In Ray Bradbury's classic, Fahrenheit 451, books are outlawed, forcing a group of rebels to memorise them and make themselves walking libraries so that the books were not lost forever.

In the Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, there is  "The Cemetery for Forgotten Books", from which visitors were required to leave with one book and protect it forever. For the main character, Daniel, the Cemetery is not only a refuge from the world outside, but also provides him with a book that will change his life.

I read another story recently, this time a true story, of a librarian in Timbuktu - Mr. Haidara. He and his fellow librarians and archivists worked under the cover of darkness to smuggle out thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, ancient texts, parchments and books, all concealed inside metal chests and oil barrels and hitched onto donkeys. It was an extremely dangerous and brave feat, which took eight long months and which resulted in the saving of around 400,000 ancient texts. Mr. Haidara's story is now a book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, written by Joshua Hammer and published by Simon and Schuster.

Books are revered the world over, libraries are places where everyone can learn and understand the world as it once was, the world as it is at present, and the world to come.
Unfortunately the number of 'bad-ass' librarians in our libraries is going down every week. In the last six years 8000 jobs have gone. That's a quarter of the permanent workforce. Unqualified volunteers working in libraries now number 31,403.
The number of libraries that have closed over the last six years is 343. Another 232 have transferred to community groups or outsourced. A further 111 are proposed for shut down over the next year or so. You can read more about it here with all the stats on BBC NEWS, and on the CILIP blog if you want to know more.

One of the arguments used in favour of shutting down some of the libraries is that they are underused and that not many books are borrowed. I use my local library, and I sometimes use the library in the next borough. My local library does not have the budget to buy many new books. The library in the next borough seems to have more of a budget and gets more new books in.
I can't request books from another borough for my teen reading group, so if my library doesn't have them, then we're stuck. We're getting a lot more stuck these days. Libraries are being run down. Then they are closed.
I love fictional libraries, and there are many, but nothing beats a real library.

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Twitter @savitakalhan


Mystica said...

The Timbuktu book sounds so very good. If you do not have access to reading material you only then realise how hard it is. In Sri Lanka english language books are either inaccessible or very expensive and what is available is the popular reading stuff. Thank God for Open Library and Netgalley and the giveaways! Now that I have a Kindle reading has taken a much better turn.

Penny Dolan said...

Savita, as ever, a well-pointed post. Inter-library lending was once a strength of the library system in the UK. Once, you could request titles from college libraries even when you were not on a particular course yourself and eventually the book would turn up in your own library. Or you could request a particular book - a study of children's reading comes to mind - and if the title seemed likely to be useful to more than just one person, the library service would try inter-library loans or else buy the book in. How utopian and equalitarian that idea seems now! College and library budgets and stock were cut, and the admin costs of inter-library loans were not deemed worthwhile.
However, although that generous time has passed, I still feel worried. Once book stock is cut to the most basic level and only the most popular titles are being bought in, surely you are downgrading the library service and starving the system -which will make destroy the system quietly but, eventually, totally . . . Oh.

Penny Dolan said...

Forgot to say: much admiration for your work with your reading group, Savita! People like you help to keep the love of reading and libraries alive. Well done!

David Thorpe said...

A terrific reminder of the value of books. We take it too much for granted, and this is partly why there is not more outcry over the closure of libraries, but in some parts of the world and in different times in history, books have meant the difference between and life lead in the dark and one lead in the light.

Savita Kalhan said...

Mystica, a Kindle is a great way of getting hold of books in some places where books are not easy to find, as long as you have access to wifi. The book on the bad-ass librarians sounds really interesting - I was amazed at what they had managed to achieve.
Penny and David - thank you.
I really do feel that it is so easy to take things for granted - as a kid growing up here, and one who practically lived in her local library - for the books and for the haven it provided - I never thought that there would come a time when libraries were under threat...