Let's hear it for Mills and Boon

17th October 1997 at 01:00
It is important not to be sentimental about public libraries. Born in the era of Victorian self-improvement, they are part of the ethos which encouraged every decent sized town to have its own arboretum and botanical gardens with plants carefully labelled with their Latin names. The big cities had zoos which exhibited the exotic wonders of Africa and Asia. And "free libraries" - some run by the municipalities, others by local literary societies - offered the joys of learning to the ambitious poor.

Between the world wars and during the decade of austerity which followed victory in 1945, public libraries were one of the few available and affordable sources of pleasure and amusement. More fiction than fact was borrowed. Reading, in the days before television, was so popular that Boots had subscription libraries behind their bigger chemists' shops. The book clubs boomed. Ratepayers gladly contributed towards the cost of entertainment as well as education.

The cliche - which no decent library devotee would use - is that times have changed. And even people like me, taken to the children's library every week by their parents and eventually allowed to graduate to the adult branch, must guard against wanting to recreate the days which are dead beyond recall.

In particular, we must avoid thinking of progress as libraries' enemy. The Internet and the web are here to stay. They can greatly contribute to the nation's understanding as well as its prosperity. Reading and libraries have to compete with and complement modern information technology. Representing reading as part of the good old days and libraries as part of a more contemplative age is not the best way to popularise books with a new generation.

But books remain an irreplaceable source of joy as well as learning. And libraries are an invaluable part of the campaign to keep the pages turning.

That means they must be brought up to date, relocated to areas where they are both psychologically and physically accessible, offer information technology as well as bound volumes and provide welcoming facilities such tea bars and mother-and-baby rooms. Above all, they must demolish the myth that books are the preoccupation of a cultural elite. Reading was meant to make us glad - all of us.

More money should be spent on municipal libraries. But demanding higher levels of expenditure on public services - health and education as well as books - is an unrewarding (though undoubtedly reasonable) response to the social neglect. The extra investment is just not going to be made.

During times of increasing austerity, few local authorities will insulate libraries from the pressure to economise. In the cold climate of the next decade, librarians must resist the temptation to concentrate the cut-backs on "popular" literature. The temptation to protect classic fiction, textbooks, biographies and do-it-yourself manuals will be very great. It must be resisted.

For libraries are intended - second only to the purpose of providing pleasure - to encourage reading amongst reluctant readers. The men and the women for whom books are a passion are going to read come what may. Libraries, as well as providing reference works for the studious and a regular diet of new titles for the assiduous readers of reviews, have to encourage reading amongst families for whom it is a strange activity.

At last month's Book Trust Conference, I got into tremendous trouble for a slogan I repeat with absolute conviction, if some concern for my literary reputation: "Better Mills and Boon than nothing."

I believe that reading is infectious. Open a book and work through the first page and the passion to read on can only increase, as long as that noble and gratifying urge is not hedged by nonsensical suggestions that books are the preserver of a special class of people.

I started with Just William (which was rubbish), moved on to Biggles (which was fascist but better) and now at least aspire to reading Daniel Deronda. Others will make a similar progression - but first we must get them through the library door.

They will only come if they are convinced that reading is for fun. Reading for self-improvement, like going to the library because we have nothing better to do, is part of the past. The future of libraries has to be pleasure.

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