Thursday 5 January 2012

Brent Council lambasted in New York Times

Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, most recently “Burnt Shadows,” which was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London. She wrote this piece for the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times.

LONDON — A couple of years ago, after a reading in Karachi, I told off a young man who was asking me to sign a pirated copy of one of my books. Piracy is destroying publishing in Pakistan, I told him. He said he understood but added that because pirated books are cheaper he could buy more of them. It’s not as if Karachi is filled with public libraries, he said.
A few weeks later, back in London, I walked into my local library and felt immensely grateful for how easily available books were — crime-free. I had no idea then of the crisis facing British libraries (pdf). Over the last year or two, you’d have had to be living under several rocks not to notice.

The part of North London I live in borders the council of Brent, now the site of an intense legal battle to save local libraries that has become the vanguard for similar efforts around the country. On Dec. 29, police officers held back protestors outside Preston Library while local government officials removed all its books, impervious to the nearby poster of Santa, a speech bubble over his head saying “Don’t rely on me; give kids their books back.” Since April 2011, 423 libraries have either closed down or been slated for closure — that’s almost 10 percent of all libraries in Britain.

In Brent, the move is being sold to the public as the “Libraries Transformation Project.” Six of Brent’s 12 libraries will be closed, and the more than $1.5 million that will (allegedly) be saved will then be used to improve the remaining libraries, create a Virtual Library and open a “super library.” That new building will cost more than $4.6 million, an expense that should give pause to anyone who says that tough decisions have to be made in this Age of Austerity — pause that might turn into speechlessness once you realize that Brent Council paid out $460,000 to consultants in March 2011, the same month officials recommended closing down all the libraries. Goodbye Austerity, Hello Transformation.

Losing half the council’s libraries will be transformative, of course. But the word usually implies a change for the better, and however wonderful it is, the super library will do little for those who live miles away. Ninety percent of users who were surveyed during the consultation process at the start of 2011 said they walk to their libraries; moving those libraries out of walking range will obviously limit their accessibility.

This simple fact appears to have been lost on the Brent Council leader, Ann Johns, who justified closing the area’s libraries on the grounds that books don’t cost much and that everyone already has computers and is getting e-readers anyway. Soon, she claimed, all Brent council residents will have access to the Virtual Library.

Putting aside the fact that this ignores how many people go to libraries precisely in order to use the public computers, one wonders whether Johns really thinks it is desirable to read War and Peace or even Tintin on a screen. As for e-book readers: Brent is among the most deprived councils in Britain. The idea that people who are deterred from visiting a library by the cost of bus fare will soon be awash in Kindles and iPads is more fanciful than thinking that Santa Claus can save a library.

Protestors are now mounting a vigil outside Kensal Rise Library, the only one of the closed libraries in Brent that hasn’t yet been emptied. It was opened in 1900 by Mark Twain. He once wrote, “A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them.” Apparently it isn’t much respected by local councils and may not survive them.

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