National Libraries Day
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th February, 2016
Today is the day for officially celebrating libraries, but in truth we should celebrate them every day of the year. When I was a child, growing up in a house where few books were read, let alone discussed, the public library in Eccles was both a refuge and a literary wonderland. For many years, after moving to London, I belonged to the London Library until they put up their subscription massively and I could no longer afford it; at least the British Library is free — and it has everything! When I am travelling I love to visit historic libraries, the last being the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Puebla in Mexico. The Spanish and Portuguese did many terrible things during their colonisation of Central and South America, but libraries — some attached to monasteries, others to civil institutions such as universities — are a valuable legacy. Not surprisingly, some of the finest are in the Iberian peninsula itself; Coimbra University’s comes immediately to mind. But libraries don’t need to be ancient or architecturally striking — historic or modern — to be important. Libraries — or “idea stores” as my home borough, Tower Hamlets, calls them — should be living organisms at the heart of their communities, offering not just books and DVDs and so on but ideally events that draw people in and get them engaged. Sadly, in too many local authorities in the UK libraries have borne the brunt of spending cuts, though in some cases volunteer-run alternatives have popped up to try to fill the lacuna. But we should be doing more, not less, to promote library use as an integral part of lifelong learning as well as community cohesion. I was greatly inspired by the “lighthouse” libraries I saw in Curitiba in southern Brazil, where each neighbourhood had its own little library (including computer terminals for free usage) and the buildings themselves had a light at the top of a tower, just like a lighthouse, shining brilliantly round the immediate area, making it a safe place for people to go after dark, but also symbolising the fact that libraries illuminate lives, singly and collectively.