Sunday, 17 August 2014

How we treat libraries says everything about the sort of society we want to be.

The former Stoke Library, a grade two listed building dating from 1878 and described as ‘iconic’ is to be sold off by the council as part of its plans to raise funds by disposing of unused buildings, the sale is thought likely to make £85,000.

Local residents aren’t pleased, the library itself moved to the town’s former indoor market in 2008, but they are concerned as to what use a new owner might put the building. One, Mick Jones (70), told the Sentinel on Wednesday that ‘once it is sold off the community won’t have any connection with its use’, adding that he thought it shouldn’t be sold to just ‘anyone’ because ‘my father, mother and grandparents all paid taxes towards places like this.’

By chance I’ve been thinking about libraries and what our attitudes towards them say about the sort of society we want ours to be quite a lot recently following a discussion that took place at the last meeting of the North Staffs People’s Assembly.

Staffordshire County Council wants to either close a number of its libraries with the option of some being taken over by community volunteers, Newcastle-under-Lyme council has its sights set on closing libraries too. As the annual budget looms what chance is there of Stoke-on-Trent City Council at least contemplating a similar move? I’m not in the business of making predictions, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Stoke still has a library and it is liable to survive, for now anyway, because it is attached to the council’s Local Centre in the town. That just leaves the question of what should happen to its former home.

Let’s not be naive here, liked it or not the council has to sell of many of its unused or underused buildings to raise much needed cash. When the buildings in question have particular architectural merit or a strong community attachment though a caveat should be attached regarding their future use, the former Stoke Library fits both criteria.

It shouldn’t just be carved up into yet more office space that nobody wants to rent or turned into swish apartments for the sort of ‘young professionals’ estate agents so love to court, it should be turned into affordable housing. This would help make the struggling town centre into somewhere people want to live and raise families and pay a fitting tribute to the social conscience of the people who set up the library in the first place.

You could, of course, make a case for libraries being hopelessly out-dated institutions long ago superseded by the internet. Actually you could make the same case about cathedrals. St Pauls occupies such a first rate location, we’d keep the façade of course and turn the insides into the most divine apartments; it would be worth an absolute mint!

You’d probably think that counts as sacrilege and even though I’m an agnostic I’d be inclined to agree. Not least because cathedrals and libraries are both buildings that have a meaning which far transcends the use they are put to.

One answers to our desire for something larger and more mystical than our own experience of the world; the other seeks to enrich that experience through learning. Lose either in significant numbers and our culture becomes that little bit poorer.

In a city like Stoke-on-Trent where we need to raise people’s skills levels and transform their attitude towards learning, making it into a lifelong activity rather than something that happens in the few years you’re at school for, libraries should be at the centre of their community. A space where everyone is made equal by curiosity, a place of shared aspirations that challenge the self- interested individualism of the market.

This isn’t just lefty idealism, learning, culture, positive interaction between sometimes divided communities, all things libraries are ideally placed to promote, are demonstrably effective ways of improving the social and economic wellbeing of individuals. There is, of course, a place for volunteers in this, but the real drive has to come from local and national government.

How we treat our libraries expresses what sort of society we have made for ourselves, tabulates what it values that can’t be recorded on a spread-sheet. If we want ours to be a society where we are more than just producers and consumers; then we should be building libraries not looking for ways to close them down.

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