In Britain, a new austerity budget has threatened massive library closures across the country, with some communities in danger of ending up with no public library at all. Philip Pullman's local chief counsellor accused authors of defending libraries because they like the royalties they earn from the books libraries buy. In response, Pullman has given this stirring speech about the value of libraries to their communities and to civilization:
The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that's all he understands. What he doesn't understand is enterprises that don't make a profit, because they're not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn't understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch - how much money did it make last year? Why aren't you charging higher fines? Why don't you charge for library cards? Why don't you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books - you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there - what's on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.
Leave the libraries alone. You don't understand their value.
That's all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for...
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don't know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.
And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what's going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You're a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?
(Thanks, GuidoDavid, via Submitterator!
(Image: Manchester Central Library, March 2010, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 16712259@N04's photostream)
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