The lending of wisdom;Platform;Opinion

16th July 1999 at 01:00
Author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg would like to see a public library system for the 21st century worthy of the vision of the Victorians who first stocked its shelves.

THE idea of a library system free to everyone in the country, easily available to everyone in the country, with ambitions to be so plentifully stocked that tastes of all kinds can be supplied to experts and amateurs alike, is a wonderful manifestation of the best a democracy can do.

It is a generous, egalitarian, optimistic, thoughtful and liberating idea. Established in the confidence of Victorian Britain, the library system must not be allowed to crumble away sadly and slowly like some once-grand municipal edifice in the middle of one of our once-grand cities, which falls from neglect into disrepair because of a lack of will and cultural understanding.

The libraries have suffered a great deal over recent decades. Like those in education and health, the people who make the system work have been underpaid, undervalued and made to feel that theirs is not a key part in the thrusting, Gecko-greed driven, technologically blinding, piranha planet at the end of the second millennium.

Pay, infrastructure, buildings, status, all have been firmly and repeatedly sent down the queue. The commitment of this government - which can scarcely be denied - and the intense work being done in preparation for the rejuvenation and repointing of the library system will, I hope, arrive in time. But it will have been a damned close-run thing.

In any society, let alone one which has it in mind to pursue a leavening of the common good, a free library should surely be seen as a priceless key. Learning and understanding and the nourishment of the imagination are fundamental to the reaching out for better worlds, especially in a society now utterly characterised by change and therefore dependent on continuing re-education. We want to be healthy, wealthy and wise. It is possible to have a wise society with little but libraries to assist it. It is impossible to think of a wise society - in a general sense - without libraries.

Like many of you, I was taught at a school which was lucky in its teachers, but the range I got from libraries was probably the best education of all. There is a feeling of exhilaration and risk and exploration in picking books from the shelf because of your own whim or ambition or both. As a boy, I almost stumbled around bookshelves in the gas-lit library in the council yard. Later on, I picked along the neat shelves revealed after a couple of us had helped two Quaker ladies to take down the shutters in the Friends' Meeting House - turned library in the evenings. Then to have unlimited use of a grammar school library (very modest in comparison with the library in the comprehensive which has replaced it), and later to have Open Sesame to the libraries of Oxford, and to continue being supported by libraries wherever I liked in the country, has put me hugely in debt to the library system, and enormously grateful for it.

For what else could I and thousands - perhaps millions - of others have done? Where else could we have set our eyes on those books? We could not have afforded one in a hundred. Perhaps we could have borrowed a few titles from teachers or patrons, but none could possibly have covered a fiftieth of the ground. All manner of fiction, poetry, general information, history, popular science, oddities, curiosities, all ready to be plucked from the shelves - together with that vital chance to make a poor choice and return the book and learn - perhaps invaluably - about roads we did not want to travel.

Where else could we have picked up a book and so discovered an author whose entire works we could exhaust, and whose imagination and landscape would become companions to us for the rest of our lives?

This is to say nothing of the library as a centre of a village, a town, a borough. To "belong to a library" was and is to belong to the broadest church extant in this country - ecumenical, cross-generational, devoted to a single purpose: the discovery of the riches of the mind of another. I do not think that the contemporary elaborations into CDs, videos and the Internet have blurred that focus: for many they have cleared and brightened it.

Those of us who are now in middle age have a powerful nostalgia for the old, often shabby library, with granddads (where were the grandmas? Confined to home, I suppose) reading the papers and keeping warm, and the "bookish" folk of the town tip-toeing about the shelves with fanatical private agendas, and their spontaneous proselytising of a newly-discovered author. But what has replaced it is often much finer and in every way more open, welcoming, helpful.

A party in government which has put education at the centre of its policy must be judged by its care for a library system which came like a blessing to this country and then withered under the curse of an indifferent ideology. I have real hopes that, given a fair run and a decent amount of time, there will not only re-emerge a library system we deserve but one that future generations will still marvel at.

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