New Zealanders from across the political spectrum are cheering the success of Eleanor Catton at the Man Booker awards yesterday. What an achievement, and I’m really looking forward to reading The Luminaries as soon as I have a moment away from the 100,000 word doctoral thesis I’m trying to complete at the moment.
Yet while we might delight in her success and that of others who have ‘made it’ on the world literary scene, how much respect do we really offer the value of books and reading back here at home – or at least in Auckland?
I’ve only recently learned that Auckland’s library system, the largest in the country with 55 libraries, is dumping books from its collections at an unprecedented rate.
The libraries’ new ‘Te Kauroa – Future Directions’ plan for 2013-2023 has five focus areas:
- The digital library – to be the ‘area of most significant growth over the next 10 years’.
- Library spaces – ‘vibrant, accessible and open for learning and inspiration”
- Children and young people – ‘every child a reader’
- Customer and community connection – ‘activate library spaces with innovative programmes and events’
- Heritage and research – ‘capture, share, celebrate, create & store the new stories of a diverse Auckland community’.
Now most of this is great stuff – but what about the books? The plan’s summary barely mentions them, the key straplines omit them altogether. The prioritisation of the digital world is really scary in the context of a plan which appears to relegate the maintenance and development of collections of hard copy books to near-invisibility.
I don’t believe we live in a world where online access now or into the indefinite future is a given. Supplies of electricity to power all these devices – much less institutional networks – may not always be as secure as they are at present.
And right now, many people can only connect to the net via public facilities. You only have to look at the queues at Auckland’s central library computers to see how inadequate they are. And guess who misses out the most on digital access – you’ve got it – those who can’t afford it, and their children.
Neil Gaiman has a wonderful article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming. I’m with him when he says:
I do not believe all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries …
I’m sure our librarians will be doing their utmost to preserve what they can while the dumping continues, but it must be heartbreaking for them to see historic texts and novels disappear in a kind of literary cleansing operation.
Libraries are a resource that should be there for all of us. Not all researchers can access a university’s online databases. Avid readers of all ages need a wide selection to keep them going, not a limited run of whatever was on last month’s bestseller list. And what’s the point of developing a wonderful heritage collection for the present and future if we chuck out the past while we’re at it?
In England, more and more communities are taking direct action to save their local libraries and their contents. For example, in this north London suburb, local citizens and members of Occupy joined together to successfully battle a library closure with direct action tactics – although they now face criticism for playing into the hands of the neoliberal agenda by helping cut council costs.
Anti-cuts campaigners are now frequently taking nonviolent direct action to keep threatened libraries open, and there are growing numbers of community owned libraries.
I realise that the new and returned Auckland mayor and councillors have other things on their mind at present than the future of our cities’ books and libraries.
However, once our council is back at work again, I’d make a plea that they revisit their strategic ten year plan, open up a new and very public consultation process and stop vandalising our cities’ collections of what should lie at the heart of any library – its books.