It was through a mobile library that Stephen Fry was first exposed to Oscar Wilde. It was in the Elizabethan poetry section of the London Library that Susan Hill had the surreal experience of E.M. Forster accidentally dropping a book on her foot. It was in a local Glaswegian library that Hardeep Singh Koli met a punk for the first time and in its lea that he smoked his first cigarette.
These particular recollections, amongst others, are collected alongside essays and short story extracts from a range of contributors – such as Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and Nicky Wire – in The Library Book. With all royalties going towards The Reading Agency’s library programs, this book serves more than just an exercise in raising dearly needed funds, but also as an impassioned statement as to the importance of public libraries.
Reflected in many of the essays, and undoubtedly part of the impetus for this book, is the UK Coalition government’s decision to cut 28% of the funding to local councils over a period of four years. As of March this year, the cut has already resulted in the closure of twenty-one public libraries, with more predicted to close over the coming months by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.
So how important are libraries? With the digitization of information and accessibility of books generally, it could be thought that the need for libraries has eroded. The Library Book makes the case against such a view. It present us with numerous anecdotes extolling the joys to be found in libraries and the important role they have played in the lives of many of the book’s contributors. A short history of the library is laid out by Tom Holland, as he explores the crucial and ever-developing position they have had throughout civilisation. Seth Godin takes us further in time, explaining his view of the future of libraries and the continual need we have for librarians, our guides to the resources of information and knowledge.
Several of the entries in The Library Book have appeared elsewhere – including Alan Bennett’s superlative contribution, ‘Baffled at the Bookcase’, which was first published last year in the London Review of Books. In this essay, Bennett discusses his earliest experiences with libraries, the frequent appearance of bookcases in his scripts and the need served by libraries beyond purely being a facility, as a space and a haven.
Edited by Rebecca Gray, The Library Book serves as a reminder of the developmental impact that libraries have and the continual place they serve in the lives of the book’s contributors and the wider community.
The Library Book is available now from Profile Books.
By Graham Hansen