Libraries gave us power

After living in the area for seven years or so, I noticed Rawdon Library the other day. It’s a fairly utilitarian bit of civic architecture, built in limestone and in sight of the A65 in the corner of Micklefield Park. It’s one of the libraries in Leeds that is earmarked for closure as part of the city’s New Chapter reorganisation and of the four in the area would appear to be the one that is most likely to close, being both relatively close to Yeadon and Guiseley libraries and quite a way from what most people would regard as Rawdon, and as such is not able to meet one of the main functions of a library, that of a community resource.

Libraries are some of the more visible resources of the municipal landscape as they are public buildings as much as they are book repositories, and therefore when they are perceived as being at risk, concerned people get together to support them. However, many of those concerned people are probably trying to save something that they remember from their childhood, and not what they are now.

Those of us who are in our forties were probably the last generation that really knew what the public libraries were. As we left school they started to be eroded by the cuts that eroded the visible aspects of public service in the 80s and 90s. Books got old and were not replaced: populism replaced service and videos and DVDs joined cassettes and CDs. The Internet brought PCs into a corner of the building and then took over when Amazon made books more easily available then any library could make them.

The libraries that are under threat now are therefore not the libraries that we think they are. Yes, they are an excellent resource, but making books available is not their primary function: they are social centres and meeting places, and as such should be preserved, but much of the goodwill surrounding them is due in part to the nostalgia of our generation.
However, let us also not forget where the British public library came from: many were founded on the bequest of the Carnegie Foundation: the kind of philanthropy that the modern Conservative Party (or its leadership at least) believes should be the foundation of the Big Society, but which in truth, would never exist in this way again.


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