Getting a library card is often a child's first voluntary act as a citizen. The civilising and (for the most part) inclusive effect of libraries becomes clear in the new issue of Index, the free speech journal, which examines the existence of libraries as a human rights issue.
The right to seek knowledge and the right to assume the library will always be there have been hard-won. These articles describe oppressive regimes ancient and modern, censorship, bureaucracy run riot (see Ivan Klima's short story) and, in the first English libraries, the bourgeois moralising and "public parsimony" which the biographer Michael Holroyd outlines while acknowledging his own debt to his local library, the nearest he, as a working class school-leaver, could get to a university.
Today our institutions have transformed their image, but the parsimony is still with us when it comes to fund-ing opening hours and books for public borrowing.
The collection marks the opening of the new Alexandria Library this year and several articles celebrate the library as liberator. There are accounts of the barefoot librarians of the Andes who carry 20 volumes in a backpack, and the underground collections built up in prisons.
It's the first contributor, Ted Hughes, who gives us the reason to hang on to our library cards: "Even the most misfitting child Who's chanced upon the library's worth, Sits with the genius of the Earth And turns the key to the whole world."