Commentary: Jeanette Winterson calls for library expansion (BBC)

I’ve just come across this BBC article, Jeanette Winterson calls for library expansion, wherein the author, speaking at the Reading Agency Lecture at the British Library, called for an expansion to libraries, as well as introducing different facilities such as post offices and creches to libraries, funded by large companies accused of avoiding paying tax in the UK, such as Amazon, Google and Starbucks.

I feel libraries are very important places. They’re not just somewhere you can get a book to read for free from (as long as you return it promptly); they’re so much more than that. They are community places, places full of information and learning and entertainment. My local library also has an information desk with info about the town and surrounding area, as well as some souvenirs. It is a place I constantly see people of all ages, parents reading to their children in the kids area, pensioners reading emails from their world-travelling grandchildren, younger people job hunting and working on their CVs on the computers, students browsing books on history for their school essays.

My local library also has an events room, which is remarkably cheap to rent for an evening, where local groups meet up and share their interests, from writing groups and local history groups to an embroidery club made up (mostly) of older ladies, play reading groups and more.

I feel very passionate about the importance of libraries, in case you hadn’t noticed. I even wrote a poem about how I felt being in my old university library at night. There’s nothing like the atmosphere of a library, nothing like the way quietness mixes with business and eager reading, nothing like the sense of companionship you can feel with an unknown reader sitting nearby curled up around an attention-consuming book, without ever knowing their name.

I would love to see more libraries. I would love to see more people reading, and more books to read, and more people excited about reading, than I do now. Libraries are so much more than places to borrow reading material from. It sounds like Winterson feels the same way. I’m not so sure about post offices in libraries – they tend to have a certain noisy busyness to them that might not work well with a library, but I suppose if customers are aware they’re also in a library they’ll behave differently than they would in a post office at the back of a Tesco. And I’m not so sure a creche is needed at all, if there’s a children’s section where a parent can read to their child, or a child can (if my own childhood is representative) sit happily reading Asterix books on their own, though I suppose a parent might want to go to the library for their own studies and have no means of looking after a very young child.

I certainly like the suggestion that the (alleged) tax avoiding companies should foot the bill. It feels like a directed way of claiming back what we, British tax payers, are owed by them, a way too of putting in place a legacy of reading and learning. In fact I’d quite like to see, more than just library improvements, a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the ways libraries can be used to bring communities together, to improve one’s own life and understanding of the world through study, and to entertain one’s children without it costing the earth. Adverts on the TV and radio, posters in railway stations.

It’s a nice thing to imagine, but I can’t see it happening. There are other issues facing Britain with huge financial concerns – education, health and police budgets are being cut, the Welfare system, admittedly inefficient, is due to be reformed in a manner which will, according to various charities, have a negative impact on children in poverty; council budgets are being cut; rent is high because so many people can’t afford to buy houses. How does one pick where to spend the money? Libraries, unfortunately, don’t come very high in the list for most people when the alternative is paying for life-saving medical treatments or more police on the streets.

But perhaps if more people read more, there’s be fewer people wandering around the streets with nothing to do, more people with the knowledge and drive to study for medical degrees, as teachers or scientists, fewer people having to decide between taking care of their child and studying to improve their employment prospects, and more people who feel part of a community. Who knows where it could lead?

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