Sunday 2 May 2010

Elections - and Libraries

Not many crime novels have been set around elections, although people like me who live in marginal constituencies are probably tempted to murder by the persistence of party campaigners and their not very illuminating leaflets, which arrive by the bucket-load. Off-hand, I can think of a couple. Robert Barnard’s Political Suicide is very entertaining, and an old favourite of mine, although inevitably some of the political stuff now seems dated, almost 25 years after the book came out. Another example is Death By Election by Patricia Hall, a capable writer whom I’ve met a number of times and who deserves to be better known.

We are now into the last few days before Britain’s voters decide what to do with their vote at a time of serious economic uncertainty. I’ve followed the election news quite closely, but I haven’t heard anyone mention libraries. One can only assume that, whoever wins the election (and even if nobody wins, in the event of a hung Parliament, which seems quite likely at the moment) that the inevitable public spending cuts would affect libraries adversely. An alarming hint of the shape of things to come came a while back when a hung (Labour-Liberal) council on Wirral threatened to close a large number of libraries, mainly in poorer areas, where the need for them was arguably greatest. It was a deeply depressing plan and I’m glad it was scrapped. But the danger remains that local authorities of all colours desperate to save money will see library closures as an easy win.

I hope against hope that wiser counsels prevail. If we are to have a safe and contented society in this country, community bonds need to be strengthened, and this means, surely, that the steady erosion of the fabric of community life (closing libraries, post offices, pubs, village stores and local schools) needs to be reversed. I quite understand that there isn’t a limitless budget to fund the buying of books (let alone computers) but the key is to ensure that libraries remain open and accessible.

This idea that small communities are at risk from social change is very much there in the background in The Serpent Pool. It’s something that preoccupies me, and its importance is not confined to rural society; in truth cities are really collections of much smaller communities with which different, often relatively small, groups of people identify closely. I do hope that, whoever has the privilege of leading this country after Thursday’s vote, they have the wisdom to ensure that our excellent library network is preserved.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thank you for this thoughtful and brilliant argument for libraries. I've never heard it put better. You are absolutely right that small communities, whether or not they are contained within cities, are fragile. Anything that tears at their fabric threatens them.

You make a very well-taken point, too, about the importance of places of social contact, libraries being one of them. Research supports strongly that we function best when we are members of a community. When that sense of community is lost, alienation sets in, with all of the consequences that brings. I, too, hope that can be avoided.

lyn said...

Hear, hear! As a librarian, I agree with everything you say, Martin. I've read in the Bookseller journal about the attempts to close branches & cut book funds. Let's hope whoever gets in has the common sense to increase library funding & help local libraries become the community hubs they should be.

Nigel Bird said...

I've posted my comments less eloquently than yourself at

Key points you didn't mention from a writers point of view is the income they receive from withdrawals and the payment they (you) receive from events.

Libraries - FANTASTIC

Congratualtions on the piece.

Fiona said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments on the need for a well funded library system, Martin - but as a former chartered librarian, I would, wouldn't I! I am alppalled that the library in my home town, in a supposedly affluent area of England, appaerently has NO qualified staff; all the 'professional' work is carried out centrally and the local staff are no more than glorified shop assistants. When I first started work in 1963 in the library 6 miles away, in a town of similar size, we had a staff of a chief and his deputy, 3 qualified departmental heads and 6 assistants in various stages of becoming qualified, plus a typist.

One of Dick Francis's latest books is told by a politician's son. His father eventually becomes an MP and there is a false 'sleaze'campaign against him which the son fights. Unfortunately I can't name the book; it's a while since I read it, and as we are decorating the room at present I can't lay my hands on the book to quote chapter and verse! But I enjoyed it very much... much more than I enjoy political wrangling in the real world.

Fiona said...

Isn't the internet useful - the book I was trying to describ is ,10lb penalty', and I'm amazed to discover it was published as long ago as 1997.

aguja said...

You are so right about libraries; Long May They Live!

Uriah Robinson said...

Martin my stepdaughter is a library assistant with a degree in art history she and other staff are in danger of being replaced by a machine. Many of the elderly patrons of her library go there not only for the books but the social contact with the staff something that those in charge don't seem to understand.

Linda P said...

Martin - thank you for this post. Libraries are a great resource, not only for books, research facilities etc., but a place for social interaction in the community. For readers, there's the advantage of trying unknown authors, perhaps going on to purchase further books that appeal. Library staff, qualified librarians or otherwise, are always helpful, I find, through organizing and participating in local book groups, hosting coffee mornings for senior citizens etc. and by being a regular friendly face in the community. After all, staff are readers themselves irrespective of qualifications. As an ordinary, retired member of society, I want to support this service by voicing my opinions to those that hold public finances with a view to keeping this vital facility in our local communities as well as the city events e.g. Literary Festivals that are partly sponsored by our councils and often organized by hardworking members of the Library Service to the benefit of speakers, writers and the book loving public.

Dorte H said...

"But the danger remains that local authorities of all colours desperate to save money will see library closures as an easy win."

Sadly, that is also so true in Denmark. And when I think about the thousands of books I borrowed during my childhood which would otherwise have been almost bookless! It is so disappointing that politicians cannot (or will not) see this opportunity to do something for families who cannot afford to buy books. It is such a relatively simple way to do something about the gap between the classes, and in Denmark free libraries and free education have done a lot to raise children from the working class to the middle class.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these thought-provoking comments. I'm glad we have a consensus on this!
Nigel, thanks for your comment, and welcome. I have added your blog to my blogroll.
Dorte, I agree. I learned a lot from books I borrowed from our local library when I was a child, and I'm now a member of several different libraries.

Nigel Bird said...

And you're added to mine.