I want to share something with you---but, well, it's a little long. But it's also incredibly worth it.
It is written by Zadie Smith and it is about libraries. (And I happen to think it incredibly insightful and smart and honest).
"I GREW up in a London council flat decorated with books, almost all of them procured by my mother.
I never stopped to wonder where these books came from, given the tightness of money generally – I just read them.
A decade later we moved to a maisonette where she filled the extra space with more books, arranged in a certain pattern. Second-hand Penguin paperbacks, then the Women’s Press books, then Virago. Then several shelves of Open University textbooks on social work, psychotherapy and feminist theory.
Busy with my own studies, and oblivious the way children are, I hadn’t noticed that the three younger Smiths were not the only students in that flat. We were reading because our parents and teachers told us to. My mother was reading for her life.
About two-thirds of those books had a printed stamp on the inside cover, explaining their provenance: PROPERTY OF WILLESDEN GREEN LIBRARY. I hope I am not incriminating my family by saying that during the mid-80s it seemed as if the Smiths were trying to covertly move the entire contents of that library into their living room.
It was a happy day when my mother spotted a sign pinned to a tree in the high road: WILLESDEN GREEN LIBRARY, BOOK AMNESTY. The next day we filled two black bin bags with books and returned them.
Just in time: I was about to start my GCSEs. I’ve spent a lot of times in libraries since then, but I remember the spring of 1990 as the most intense study period of my life, probably because it was the first.
To choose to study, with no adult looking over your shoulder and only other students for support – this was a new experience for me.
I think it was a new experience for a lot of the kids in there. Until that now-or-never spring, we had come to the library primarily for the cafe or the cinema, or to meet various love prospects of whom our immigrant parents would not approve, under the cover of that all-purpose, immigrant-parent-silencing sentence: “I’M GOING TO THE LIBRARY.”
When the exams came, we stopped goofing off. There’s no point in goofing off in a library: you are acutely aware that the only person’s time you’re wasting is your own. We sat next to each other at the long tables and used the library computers and did not speak. Now we were reading for our lives. Still it’s important not to overly romanticise these things. Willesden Green Library was not to be confused with the British Library. Sometimes whole shelves of books would be missing, lost, defaced or torn. Sometimes people would come in just to have a conversation while I bit my pens to pieces in frustration.
Later I learnt what a monumental and sacred thing a library can be. I have spent my adult life in the sort of libraries that make Willesden Green’s look very small indeed; to some people, clearly, quite small enough to be rid of without much regret. But I never would have seen a university library if I had not grown up living 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways – not only to other libraries but to other lives. Of course I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow – like so many of the present Cabinet – you might not understand the point of such lowly gateways, or be able to conceive why anyone would crawl on their hands and knees for the privilege of entering one.
It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, they ask, and if libraries matter to you, well, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if you value them?
They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money, at the extreme end of which logic lies the idea that people who fail to generate a lot of money for their families cannot possibly value their families as people with money do.
My own family put a very high value on education. Like many people without money, we relied on our public services. Not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities. We paid our taxes in the hope that they would be used to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally.
We understood very well that there are people who have no need of these services, who make their own private arrangements, in healthcare and education and property and travel and lifestyle, and who have a private library in their own private houses.
Nowadays I also have a private library in my own private house, and a library in the university in which I teach. But once you’ve benefited from the use of shared institutions you know that to abandon them when they are no longer a necessity is like Wile E. Coyote putting a rope bridge between two precipices only to blow it up once he’s reached the other side – so that no one might follow.
Community exists in Britain. It is a partnership between government and the people and it is depressing to hear the language of community – the Big Society – being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership as it attempts to renege on the deal. What could be better than handing people back the power so they might build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the onerous tasks of building their lives and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government, and the protection of public services to government, that being government’s mandate, and the only justification for its power.
That the grotesque losses of the private sector are to be nationalised, cut from our schools and our libraries, our social services and our health service – in short, from our national heritage – represents a policy so shameful I doubt this Government will ever live it down. Perhaps it’s because they know what the history books will make of them that our politicians are so cavalier with our libraries: from their point of view, the fewer places you can find a history book these days, the better."