Saturday, 10 February 2007

Down With Books

Libraries, large and small, are in the news at the moment. The Government has announced it will cut funding to the British Library by a massive £7 million. This is appalling because it is one cultural institution that is justifiably admired throughout the world. If you want to find something out, go to the British Library.

For the Labour Party to make such a cut is particularly shocking because it was through such institutions - albeit more modest - that millions of working people had access to self-education and, ever since borrowing of books became free, visiting a library became a way of life for many.

The powers that be are very good at lip-service, however, and like to appoint 'tsars' to champion cultural pursuits. One such is a Children's Laureate and it's Jacqueline Wilson - that well-known children's writer - that currently has that honour.

And she's got the bit between her teeth: she's warned British libraries (in general) that they are failing to offer children a wide enough and large enough range of books. We certainly need someone like her to speak up for young readers.

Because what she says is right. My local library has just been re-built (for the second time) at great expense. Incorporated is a new museum, an art gallery and a cafeteria: the first 'new' library had most of that of course, minus the cafe.

But what of the area dedicated to the Children's Library: it's smaller than the last one, which was smaller than the original one in the Victorian building. Young readers are obviously considered to be so unimportant now that their area in the spanking new up-to-the-minute building is tucked away in a cramped little corner.

As an adult, you can have a cappuccino as you browse through your Italian novella but there's no room for you to get down on the floor - or even stand - with your little cherub to nurture his interest in gladiators and help him find a book about them.

We need to encourage children to read - isn't that what libraries are meant to be for: today's little readers will be tomorrows big borrowers. We should be supplying a friendly, bright and open space for the purpose.

And that's not the only problem, as Jaqueline points out. Libraries are spending money on new buildings but they're not spending it on what they should: new books. They make the excuse that young visitor numbers are falling, due to cheap books and expensive computers. But generally figures disprove this; young visitor numbers are slightly up.

It seems that every kid on the block has bought or read the latest Harry Potter; the success of Rowling's series proves that there are ready, willing and able young readers out there. These guys need a constant supply of fresh and challenging new books in as wide a range as possible if they are to keep up their interest.

Books feed the mind and a narrow diet is not very appetising. And, by the way, nobody likes being pushed into a corner.


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