Best-selling author defends libraries in UK

The UK’s Guardian has reported the stir created by a speech against library budget cuts by author Philip Pullman (“His Dark Materials” trilogy, the basis of the film “The Golden Compass”) on Jan. 20 at Oxford’s town hall.

At issue was Oxfordshire’s County Council’s plan to shut 20 of the county’s 43 public libraries. But Pullman’s words are just as well suited to the situation with many of America’s libraries.

In his speech, Pullman calls libraries “too precious to destroy.”

Recalling his introduction to libraries by his mother in 1957, he said,

“Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens in the republic of learning. Only the public library can give them that gift.”

Comparing the plan to “the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship,” Pullman addressed Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, who, he said, “said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

“I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

“Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?”

The text of the speech is available in full at the False Economy site, which describes itself as “for everyone concerned about the impact of the government’s spending cuts on their community, their family or their job.”

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