In praise of libraries

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This has been library week for me. It was time to renew my alumnus library card at the British Library of Political and Economic Science housed in the Lionel Robbins building at the London School of Economics. When I studied there, I couldn’t always relish the richness of one of the world’s greatest social science libraries because of the sense of being on a conveyor belt that comes with a one-year MSc; I was surrounded by people whose natural pace was at least one Mach number faster than mine. But I looked forward to the time when I could enjoy using the library as an independent reader and researcher. I anticipated, for example, stimulating hours spent browsing the volumes of the excellent ecological journal Environmental Values, edited from the University of Lancaster.

Well, they were some time coming, but I made my way up Norman Foster’s spiral-stepped ramp to the second floor and located the green-bound volumes, and took one to a quiet study area on the perimeter of the airy, light building, well away from the click of keyboards and the hormonal rush of the world’s most fashion-conscious student bodies. I revisited the fascinating case of the Isle of Harris superquarry, in which an application to destroy one of the most magnificent landscapes in Europe to extract hard-core for road building was rejected by the Scottish environment minister Sam Galbraith.

I suppose study doesn’t feature on most people’s list of pleasures, because it has got itself a bad or at least a utilitarian name. Most people study with a strictly ulterior purpose: their eye is on the qualification and the dollar signs that beckon in the distance. They don’t expect to enjoy the process in the meantime.

The idea that the library could be a great place of discovery, of serendipitous connection, is unfortunately not promoted by academic orthodoxy. It might reek of the days of aristocratic privilege, of the Sieur de Montaigne in his Gascon tower, reading for pleasure while war raged around below. War still rages, but one of the great advantages of our age over the 16th century is that so many people can, potentially, enjoy the privileges of mind-opening study once reserved for aristocrats.

I think it was an impulse along those lines that inspired Thomas Carlyle to found the London Library in 1841. He wanted people to be able to enjoy the benefits of a national library in the comfort of their home, by the warmth of their own hearth. The London Library is a private institution, but it is not difficult to join for anyone with a bona fide interest in books and reading, and the cost, at about £200 a year (subscription due this week), though not negligible, is not overwhelming.

The great advantage of the London Library – that you can borrow books – is also its nemesis. Books are either held interminably by members who ignore due notices, or just disappear. Strangely, it seems philosophy books are the ones most apt to vanish. The excellent Cambridge Companion to Heidegger in the library’s collection no doubt still exists, but all traces of its whereabouts have evaporated (if anyone reading this column happens to have purloined it, please return it immediately).

There is one place, though, where you can be sure the book you want will be found. That is the great national copyright library, the British Library. When I heard of the decision to axe £7m from the budget of the British Library, forcing the possible closure of the Colindale Newspaper library and, for the first time in its history, charges to readers, I recalled Douglas Hurd’s phrase “punching above our weight”. This referred to the added kapow-factor supposedly given to British diplomacy by the UK nuclear deterrent. Apparently, without having had any proper national or parliamentary (or even cabinet) debate on the subject, we are going to spend £20bn to £30bn upgrading the Trident nuclear missile and submarine programme (in order to deal with suicide bombers). But the areas where Britain has surely punched above its weight are culture and science.

When I studied at the University of Barcelona, while enjoying the cultural riches of the Catalan capital, I was shocked by the poverty of the university’s resources. My college library at Cambridge had an infinitely better collection than the entire university of Spain’s second city and commercial dynamo. I only later found out that Barcelona University, although founded in the middle ages, was actually shut down for more than a hundred years after the 1701-1714 war of Spanish succession as an act of cultural vindictiveness by the Spanish state (not, unfortunately, the last: Franco repeated the injury after the Spanish civil war by making the public use of the Catalan language illegal).

Closing or impoverishing universities and libraries is one of the surest signs of a philistine, foolish government. I would be amazed if Gordon Brown, a son of the manse and by all accounts a voracious reader, wished to go down in history as the man who impoverished the British Library, and by extension the British people and the wider community of scholars and readers.

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