I watched a fascinating programme recently about the splendid new £189 million library in Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben. This vivacious new structure was being celebrated as the focal point of the city that it is intended to become. Here, explained presenter Tom Dyckhoff, the people would gather, surrounded by erudition and possibility. I was inspired, while glumly contemplating that, since moving to Brighton some ten years ago,it had never even crossed my mind to explore – let alone join – my local library. I set forth the very next morning to sign up – and it was free! For no pounds whatsoever I could take out up to 40 books at a time. Free books! For nothing! I’ve still not quite got over my excitement at this prospect. As a great lover of reading, I pay annual premiums to various online institutions in order to click and get my tomes as swiftly as possible. In a single bound, now I wasn’t paying for them at all. And, a bit like second-hand furniture, I like to think of all the people who may have enjoyed a novel before me, rather than finding it used or grubby. And if I love a read enough, being ever mindful of Ruskin’s statement that, ‘A book worth reading is worth buying,’ I can still opt to purchase it for archive if I so desire. But then, I rather like returning them; it feels very Zen and clutter-free. An author-supporting dilemma.
But back to my local library. As well as the stacks of novels-to-go, there was a children’s play centre, language classes in progress, people studying, others reading the stock of newspapers and magazines, and people meeting up over coffee. This really was a public, social, busy space.
And yet libraries are closing all around us, and I’m not surprised. While I appreciate that they’re conceived as public services, they therefore rely on subsidies from local authorities, which in turn have had their budgets cut, and so non-revenue-producing entities become vulnerable to closure. But why couldn’t they make money? Not necessarily reams of profit, but surely enough to pay their way? Why is commerce seen as a dirty word within service? Surely it’s just common sense, like the efficient use of a credit card -(ie, don’t charge what you can’t afford to pay back within the interest-free period). Perhaps they could host literary salons, exhibitions and festivals, readings and book clubs, all with a nominal fee to attend? Or open in-house shops with related reading paraphernalia? I know some, like Birmingham and Brighton, do some of these already, and in truth I’m not sure what the funding answer is, but re-imagining their purpose has to be the future. As a child, a visit to the library was a treat to be looked forward to; I’m perturbed that as I got older, I seem to have simply forgotten to go, but I guess it’s because most didn’t evolve alongside me, either socially, culturally or technologically. And that’s a dangerous place to be in the 21st century.
If the library in Brighton had closed down, I would have been outraged, but then I’d have had to admit that I hadn’t done anything to keep it alive either. So, this is why most of my family will be receiving something of a tangibly literary persuasion this Christmas, alongside shiny new library cards: to instil, or reinvigorate, a love of discovery. And this will be a gift that gives for a lifetime.
First published as my Editor’s Letter in the December 2013 edition of ELLE Decoration UK