The Null Device
As Britain's Tory-led government prepares to bring in a regime of cuts that make High Thatcherism look like 1970s Sweden, one of the services set to be hit hardest will be libraries, with nearly half of libraries closing in some councils (because, the reasoning seems to go, if they don't make a profit they can't be very important to the public after all, and if there is a profit to be made, the free market, in its beneficent wisdom, will step in and provide what the public wants). As for those libraries that are left standing, there won't be money to pay for professional librarians to staff them, so those will be replaced with volunteers from the general public (because, to paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson, how hard can it be to put books back on shelves?).
Here is the transcript of a speech from Philip Pullman, delivered at a meeting to save Oxfordshire's libraries, about why this ostensibly economically rational measure is actually an act of gross cultural and social vandalism:
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?
Imagine two communities that have been told their local library is going to be closed. One of them is full of people with generous pension arrangements, plenty of time on their hands, lots of experience of negotiating planning applications and that sort of thing, broadband connections to every household, two cars in every drive, neighbourhood watch schemes in every road, all organised and ready to go. ... I’m not knocking them. But they do have certain advantages that the other community, the second one I’m talking about, does not. There people are out of work, there are a lot of single parent households, young mothers struggling to look after their toddlers, and as for broadband and two cars, they might have a slow old computer if they’re lucky and a beaten-up old van and they dread the MOT test – people for whom a trip to the centre of Oxford takes a lot of time to organise, a lot of energy to negotiate, getting the children into something warm, getting the buggy set up and the baby stuff all organised, and the bus isn’t free, either – you can imagine it. Which of those two communities will get a bid organised to fund their local library?
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. That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.