Love your libraries

From 1998 until 2012, I had the great privilege and pleasure of being involved with a music summer school for amateur pianists, singers, conductors and composers. I arrived in that first year a terrified fifteen-year-old, convinced everyone on the Young Pianists course would be better than me and not knowing what on earth to expect. Within a few cycles of the school, I was involved in every aspect I could be, attending every session and concert I could get to, and having crazed sight-reading sessions with my fellow students (on one memorable occasion, two of the most talented young players had a race through the same piece of Chopin in adjoining practice rooms, the doors open and the rest of us in the hall cheering – it was completely brilliant if totally unmusical). And inevitably, I was asked to join the organising committee. By the time the summer school’s fortunes had turned and we ran our last course in 2012, I had become the music director.

The first major responsible role I undertook, however, was that of music librarian. I had been quietly getting on with being a co-opted committee member, writing puzzles for the newsletter and being A Helpful Person on site during the week… when a message suddenly flew around the committee, in the lead-up to the 2005 summer school, that our long-standing music librarian had been involved in a serious car accident. I agreed to take on the role. Our previous librarian had worked almost exclusively from mental notes and scribbled post-its – I had no library card numbers, no subscription information, no nothing beyond a shortlist we managed to cobble together, from her previous reports, of the most likely libraries to help. And so I was tasked with trying to figure out how we might order all the necessary choral music for the forthcoming course.

Every librarian I spoke to was wonderful. Not only did almost all of them remember my predecessor; they were also very willing to find ways around my lack of official paperwork, and patiently explained to me how to hire, borrow, arrange delivery and so on. They sought out sets and specific editions, got in touch with other organisations to ensure we would have enough to go around, and generally made the entire experience of dealing with this task both informative and far less daunting than it had seemed. I am indebted to all of them, and so are the 130-odd people who were able to continue their music-making as normal the following summer.

There has been a tremendous amount in the press this week about the sorry state of libraries in this country. Swathes of libraries have closed; many others are being run almost exclusively by volunteers. Not all of those amazing music librarians who saved our bacon back in 2005 have collections any more. Habits, of course, have changed: the easy availability of information on the internet, the invention of the e-reader, the vast number of digitised resources, the low cost of books from both second-hand sites and the likes of Amazon. We should expect the number of libraries to have fallen back, right? And at the end of the day, why is it a problem that volunteers are running some of them? I mean, I worked briefly as a student library assistant at university – all you need to do is scan someone’s card, click on the little barcode box thingy and scan the book, play with the date stamps and bob’s your uncle! Job done. No money or training required.

Large library reading room

Except that’s nonsense, of course. There is a reason it takes time and training (often a degree of some kind) to be a librarian. Classification methods, organisational structures, care and conservation of items, digital publishing and resources, working with rare documents (for a public librarian, this might include council records or personal papers of notable locals – this is not exclusive to university collections), designing databases to enable access to information… these and many other skills are held by professional librarians. You’ll notice that this list doesn’t include many of the other things which might fall under the remit of someone working in a public library – like events organisation, helping both young and adult learners access material, planning exhibitions or link-ups with other local groups, how to deal with difficult patrons, and so on. No, they are not just people having a nice time with a barcode scanner and a rubber stamp. No, they are also not a group consisting exclusively of socially awkward, tweed-clad intellectuals with a pair of glasses dangling around their neck on a little chain. They are smart, organised people with a very particular set of skills who do a great deal to contribute to the environments in which they work – whether that be a university archive, a school, or a public centre.

There are two things that strike me as particularly worrying about the current trajectory of library provision. The first, as many people have pointed out, is to do with wildly varying access to libraries as a result of all this cutting and streamlining. Children need books. I shan’t insult anyone’s intelligence by linking to anything that proves why this is the case. Adults also need books, whether they be for relaxation, education or work. And many also need the other things public libraries can provide: a quiet space. Somewhere to read or work in peace without the need to purchase an overpriced latte and drown out the canned music as you peer around the walls looking for the table next to the plug socket. Access to a computer and the internet to search for work, fill in job applications, deal with online tax returns. A place to be, and browse, and try stuff out. A meeting place, even if that meeting involves sitting quietly on beanbags and reading together. A place where people work who can help you with any and all of these things. This should be available to anyone who needs it, anywhere in the country, without protracted journeys or infrequent opening hours to contend with. If a government truly wants to improve the educational – and thus economic – prospects of its populus, this seems blindingly obvious.

The second thing that worries me is to do not with access, but with the image of the library system. Thank goodness for volunteers – thank goodness for them, because without them, so many more places would not have any kind of library access. However, much like the organisations which claim to support musicians and then won’t pay them properly, a society in which some libraries only exist because unpaid non-specialists have tried to patch, as best they can, the rips and tears left by spending cuts, is sending a message that the service is not worth professionally supporting. It only works if enough people have enough time and money to be volunteers. And with the best will in the world, many of those volunteers will never be able to offer the kind of skills, services, and support of professional librarians, whose skill base, in combination with some kind of financial support for events, building maintenance, new acquisitions and so on, is what makes a library. Not enough money in your area to have sufficient doctors’ surgeries for everyone? Fancy a volunteer doing it instead? I mean, they’re doing it for all the right reasons to help and support their community, so the level of care is basically going to be the same. No? Thought not.

I have, over the course of my life, been reliant upon professional librarians in funded spaces, public and private. From the mobile library van when I was little, to school library corners; my parents’ local library to entertain me during the holidays; my university library to support my studies and be a place to work; my university city library for music books, fiction and somewhere to sit quietly; all those wonderful music libraries which made our summer school possible; countless libraries across London for research, pleasure and events… and the network of libraries which meant that one way or another, someone could always help. We lose this at our peril. Not because there is anything inherently wrong or evil about the internet or buying cheap copies on Amazon. But because what a library offers – what a professionally staffed, well-resourced library in a national network of libraries, offers all of us – is so much more than a wall full of books and a person with a rubber stamp.

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