Growing up in a house with lots of books, our trips to the public library were occasional. Post-school, I always had access to university libraries which seemed much more plentiful than the public libraries in the kinds of things I wanted to read. But now, with more limited access to the university, I’ve turned to the public ones and found them lovely. There are queues, but I don’t have to stand in them; I simply watch my progress in them via my personalised online account, and when I get to the top, I stroll over to my library of choice in my lunch hour, pick up my books, flash my card and I’m on my way.
It seems I’m not the only one to have discovered public libraries. So, apparently, has David Cameron, who plans to close 350 of them in the UK (“Do you mean we're actually paying for people to read?” he might have spluttered) as part of a broader program of slashing the legs off society in order to make it bigger. To the economic rationalist libraries are sitting ducks. Their only source of revenue is the twenty cent fines they are so reluctant to impose (one Canberra library offers patrons the choice of a fine or a donation to the Salvos) and their services, attractive spaces and expansive collections are provided free to their users, with no apparent dividend except unmeasurable (if not immeasurable) enjoyment. If, as Borges imagined, paradise will be a kind of library, libraries are, in their way, a kind of paradise.
The thing about economic rationalists is that they rarely take the long view, or the deep view; that old line about the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Philip Pullman has recently risen to impassioned defense of the public libraries, citing not only what they do but what they represent as compelling reasons to keep them open. He’s right: as well as preserving the knowledge and wisdom of the ages, libraries provide democratic access to them, fostering community and civility and many other things that a ‘big society’ might be thought to comprehend. And if one were still looking for a dividend, what about the potential of a society with free and unfettered access to learning? A view both long and deep, but not without some precedent. Before shooting these sitting ducks, Cameron should have checked for golden eggs.