The humble library is ‘Medicine for the soul’

I’m going to have a serious rant about libraries now; but beyond my geeky outrage there is a serious point to be made…

The inscription above the library entrance at Thebes read, ‘Medicine for the soul’, never a truer word was spoken. Reading this news that the BBC reported depressing bit of news this morning:

New Government figures show that the number of people who visit a library weekly has dropped by 32% in five years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot in one in the last year.

I find this depressing because I am a library lover, a dying breed it seems. (As an aside, I hope students weren’t included in these figures, as they should definitely not be in that 60% who haven’t visited a library in the past year…)

The Library at Thebes

I love libraries, I love being in them, browsing the books, finding a chair and having a read, and I still go the library and get books out, even though I purchase books regularly too. One of the first things I did when I moved to Leeds (Sep 2008) was join the central and local libraries; perhaps because I always feel at home in a library wandering around the shelves. As a young child, at school and with my parents, we would visit the library every week, it was something we looked forward to and was encouraged. I’m sure there are families that still do this, but apparently not enough.

The death of the library is symptomatic of a larger problem; the anti-intellectual brigade, the waning concentration spans of younger generations, technological takeover, and general lack of love for the written word. I’ve already written about my dislike for the kindle, iPad et al, but this is something else. Libraries are not the hallowed halls of quiet reflection and study, but some sort of community centre, not solely for reading and researching, but meeting, and talking and generally being all things to all people. In an effort to attract a wildly uninterested youth, libraries have become computer and music stores, with coffee shops and meeting rooms. How are we going to take libraries seriously, and encourage love of reading and studying if libraries are losing their purpose?

I see nothing wrong with encouraging healthy reverence around books and in a library; libraries were always hallowed places when I was younger, no talking, no eating, and certainly no mobile phones, even the kids reading corner was whispered and hushed. Now modern libraries have kids sections with instruments (!), banks of computers right next to the books – where you can plug your headphones in and annoy everyone with your tinny music, stands in the lobby where people approach you with the latest community scheme, and talking is allowed, nay, encouraged! I firmly remember the stern glare from the librarian if you made a noise, ran anywhere, or generally were a little swine with an utter lack of respect.

Isnt there something to be said for encouraging kids to sit and read quietly, and absorb what they are reading? It’s good training for later life, for further study, for work, for concentrating, and simply, for learning something. Books teach you stuff kids!

And today’s worst library crime – mobile phones are allowed in certain areas. In my university library this meant the

The more 'modern' library...

lobby and stairwell areas. Doesn’t sound that bad you might say, but no one paid any attention to the rule. The majority of these well-educated young people just didn’t seem to get it and still answered a call at the top of their voice whilst strolling to the stairwell when they talked loudly enough for you to hear every word of conversation through the door. And the sound of vibrating mobile phones on desks all over the library haunts me. There were a fair number of brazen souls who would not even bother leaving their desk but just have a conversation right there, normally along the lines of:

“Are you in the library?! OMG! Me too! Wow, look at us, studying and stuff…I’ve been here ten minutes and I’m bored already. What floor are you on? OMG, get down here we can work together LOL…yeah bring Chloe! So glad you’re here too! Shall we go to the pub in a bit…”

So this probably warrants another post on students; but I’m not going to get started on that one right now…

I’m sure I sound cantankerous and unreasonable, but I just like a bit of quiet in the library….


And now, from our correspondent in….

Listen to the doomsayers, and traditional journalism is dead. With the advent of The Times paywall, which no one can seem to decide if it is successful or not, and Wikileaks rising prominence, ‘stateless journalism’ according to some; then old news is dead. But this is old news in itself really, it’s been many years since print media relied on people buying their publications for revenue. I personally still buy newspapers and magazines, and think there is nothing better than flicking through the pages and soaking it up. Which is not to say I don’t read news online or via other sources, I do that all day every day. But I’m not going to stop buying newspapers, or Time, or Economist or Guardian Weekly. I like the pages in my hand.

I’m a bit more hardcore when it comes to books though, because I’m a geek, and I love to read. To me, there is nothing like holding a book in my very own hands, turning the pages, putting it on my bedside table, marking my page and not being able to wait to get back to it. Yes, I know I could do all this with a Kindle or iPad, but I’m just not interested, I love the feel of a book, and I’m not going to give up my Waterstones addiction any time soon.

There is little doubt though, that breaking news is the domain of the internet, with Twitter leading the pack. Although interestingly, Wikileaks, a firmly web-based service, announced it’s big Afghan war log leaks in print. With The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times sharing the landmark leak. Proof then, that newspapers still have a part to play. The three papers have had this particular bit of news for months, but have spent that time analysing, documenting and presenting the information. Which would have been impossible if they had released the leaks online as soon as they had received them; once it’s out there on the web, it’s also out of control.

This also brings me to another old grumble of mine, concerning journalism and responsibility. Don’t journalists have some responsibility to national security? I thought the same thing when I blogged way way back when about senior anti-terror officer Bob Quick’s unfortunate security lapse, which this countries newspapers reported in technicolour glee. He subsequently lost his job – as the press bayed for blood, and conveniently ignored the fact that the operation he accidentally exposed was carried out safely and successfully.

Julian Assange launching the leak

UK and US sources have accused Wikileaks of having complete disregard for national security, and of having ‘blood on their hands’. Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and chief is unapologetic, he is simply exposing a ‘truth’. But at what cost? Pertinent facts have again gone ignored by the media, the Afghan war logs are actually quite old, and document activity before new rules of engagement were introduced this year, and very few commentators have reflected on the indiscriminate behaviour of the hostile forces the coalition troops come up against. War is painful, ugly and lamentable, but that is nothing new – it’s only now it can be reported in full, graphic detail that we get a sense of it. The media have largely made up their mind in the UK that this War on Terror is an illegal failure. I’m undecided myself, but I see no reason for putting the lives of coalition troops and Afghan informers at risk, or desperately trying to highlight how immoral coalition forces are. Lest we forget that they are doing a job, and the vast majority are not murderous occupiers as portrayed; it’s a job I certainly wouldn’t like, or have to guts to do, but I respect and support completely.

Bob Quick lost his job over his widely reported blunder, Tony Hayward, on behalf of BP, would probably have had a much quieter and gentler exit were it not for the hacks, bloggers, and vociferous media attacks calling for his scalp. Will someone lost their job over the Wikileaks bombshells? Probably, Bradley Manning is the first low-ranking sacrificial lamb. Will this kind of thing happen again? Probably.

We are all journalists now, and we can all report what and when we like, and with whatever bias or viewpoint we hold. I think this is a good thing, but it’s also a little bit dangerous – there are very few boundaries left – and it’s not just chucked into the ether, this kind of leak or reportage has a direct effect on the lives of real people.

Still, I make the case for print media again, consider this blog post by a fellow Guardian Weekly reader, there is nothing like actually holding those pages in your hands.