Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A library education

I must admit to not knowing very much about public libraries. Until a few years ago I didn’t go to them all that often, partly because there wasn’t one on my doorstep, and partly because having to return the books in time felt like a nuisance I could do without. And yes, I suffered from the common prejudice that libraries were essentially musty places where the books, like the customers, were rather too well-worn.

All that has changed. My son Leo, though, who is four in August, is a big consumer of pre-school and early years literature. He requires a constantly renewed diet of the stuff, which Uta or I are required to read aloud before lights out – and often (less delightfully) very early in the morning. My local library has an excellent children’s section, and without it we’d be very hard put to maintain Leo’s interest. We take out about ten books at a time, changing them about once a fortnight. On top of that we buy books, because we know now exactly what our son likes best: evidence, if any were needed, that Waterstone’s has no better friend in the high street than the public lending library.

Jan Bild, my hostess at the Berlin Intercultural Reading Groups, turns out to know a thing or two libraries, having spent most of her professional life as a librarian. She is what you might call a campaigning librarian, having successfully fought to keep open a number of libraries that short-sighted (one might say philistine) councils have sought to close at one time or another, including libraries in my own borough of Wandsworth. She has also been instrumental in bringing library and self-teaching facilities to Wandsworth Prison – in the face of institutional obstruction and bottomless cynicism – with measurably beneficial results for all concerned.

And it doesn’t end there. Her reading group network in Berlin, which began life under the auspices of the British Council, is widely recognised as a model. Jonathan Coe, Georgina Harding and Debbie Moggach have been among the authors recently accepting invitations to its ‘meet the author’ events in the German capital. In my case, this involved a Q&A with Jan, and lots of questions from the audience (the latter being rather an un-German element; reading events in Germany being simply that, for the most part). The evening, which was held at an extraordinarily large, airy and modern library in the district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, was very well attended and very lively.

Jan has strong views about where British libraries are going wrong. It isn’t just that they’re starved of money. It’s also that the management in many cases have got it into their heads that what they need to pull the punters in is lots of current bestsellers. That means lots of books about vampires and the latest recommendations from Richard and Judy. In other words, as Jan puts it, that they should try to compete head-on with Tesco. This is a mistake. The limitation of Tesco, even of most specialist book shop branches, is the limited range of titles it carries. If you are in the market for an Edith Wharton, for example, even a decent sized Waterstone’s is unlikely to carry anything except The Age of Innocence. Public libraries should be places where you go for the classics, for good books that may never have been on a bestseller list, or which haven't been near one for years. They should be places of range and depth – not simply places were you can get hold of the latest fast seller for £3.99 less than it costs at the supermarket.  I agree with this analysis – but then, I have to admit, I’ve never been much drawn to what’s current in fiction anyway.
The Ingeborg-Drewitz Library in Berlin

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