Battles of the Books

It’s 4.30, and I’m not sure when last I was asleep. Possibly not since 1986. Let’s talk about books, baby.

I spend between 30 and 40 hours a week in the British Library, whose strapline is: “Explore the World’s Knowledge.” I’ve even started to build up the proportion of that time that I spend conscious, since these baby-stepping beginnings. And less time shooting the shit with the Gummie Bears in the Land of Nod, means more time at the intellectual coal face Exploring the World’s Knowledge. And there’s a lot of coal to get through: it’s a darn sight bigger than Marlboro County.

Here’s how a day at the library begins.

Generally, it’s drizzing. Some hardy souls and some rough beasts in macs and flat caps slouch towards the double doors, which aren’t going to open for about half an hour, and gaggle beside them shivering and hunching their shoulders lest the rain dribbles inside their collars. Sometimes they banter quietly. Often not. Just as their knuckles are turning blue and their spines are crawling into their Doc Martens, the doors open and everyone rushes inside, like a stampeding Harlequins front row, hoping to bag themselves a locker that doesn’t require them to bend down, and a desk that doesn’t require them to walk more than six yards to the book collection point.

You get the gist. But one morning towards the end of last year, we all turned up to find a letter had been left on our desks. “The cuts will mean around 200 job losses over the next two to three years, and a review of all our activities. Staff account for some 70% of the Library’s variable costs so we can only achieve the reductions required of us by a reduction in staffing numbers.”

Do you know how you get at a book in the British Library? It takes real human staff. At least two, probably more. You whizz up the details of the book you want on the computer, whereupon, redundancy-threatened people snap out of their chemically-induced coma, and go scurrying off to dungeons in all corners of the building to fetch it back from the moveable Temple of Doom of bookstacks. Then they bring it back to a little room behind the issue desk, and, when you come to collect it, another real, live member of staff goes and fetches it from your little slot on the shelves in that room for you. Sometimes the book has to be retrieved from Yorkshire, which requires lorry drivers and people to buy them sandwiches. Sometimes you have to be supervised when you read it, which needs, well, supervisors.

I think you see where I’m going with this. The British Library staff are the solid-gold salt-of-the-earth folk who actually make exploring the world’s knowledge possible. The Library’s own values reckon “We are passionate about sharing information and are inspired by our users and their contributions.” Kind of democratic isn’t it? But it’s not really sharing information if that information remains locked in a  store cupboard which only a bunch of now-bearded, tea-swilling dole wallahs, who are no longer welcome in the building know how to access.

Fact is, the British Library holds some staggeringly privileged bits of paper. It’s got The Magna Carta, The Lindesfarne Gospels, Leonardo da Vinci‘s Notebook, the Beatles manuscripts. And people gave it this stuff, or allowed it to be sold to the library, because it seemed like an august and trustworthy place to deposit it in the best interests of its preservation and public access. But if the resources are no longer so easy to access, people will, start thinking twice about allowing their heirlooms and hieroglyphs to go to the BL, which will not only weaken the library’s claim to “World’s Knowledge” status, but also means that more human treasures will end up publicly inaccessible in bank vaults, private collections, and Shergar’s Porataloo.

The British Library, as it keeps pointing out, is an institution. Its St Pancras building is the largest public building constructed in the UK in the twentieth century. If literary mamas with that kind of firepower are struggling with cuts, what hope for the library in Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes, whose members took direct borrowing action to fight against closure, going on a spree of taking out 15 books each until the library was clear of all works bar the biographies of Jimmy Nail it grossly over ordered seventeen years ago?

Let’s face it, there ain’t no social leveller like public access to information and learning, and we’re in danger of letting a privileged cabal of nose-pickers shut down that access at its source. The Bookseller’s campaign is here. Twitter responses are here. #savelibraries everybody.

~ by David Thorley on January 18, 2011.

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