In praise of libraries

I’m a big fan of libraries. They are one of those few public spaces that truly belong to the entire community. Drop into Luton’s central library and you’ll find school children downstairs, Sheik men reading the papers on the armchairs in the middle, students on the balconies above, and pensioners gathering upstairs for the afternoon film screenings in the library theatre. There’s a steady stream of people in to use the internet terminals, and council workers popping across the road for lunch in the little cafe. It’s a hub of activity and something we should all be proud of. And that’s before you even get to the bookshelves.

Unfortunately, libraries are expensive and in many parts of the country, just not used enough to make them worthwhile. Many people are taken to libraries as children, and don’t darken their doors again until they retire. We don’t read as much as we used to, and internet access at home has boomed. The cost of books and films has fallen, and we like to have our own things rather than sharing. All of which makes libraries somewhat vulnerable. Whichever party ends up wielding the chopper after the election, they’ll be eyeing any service that isn’t delivering value for money on their terms. Like the Post Offices or National Rail, we might not realise what we’ve got until its gone.

The fact is, holding more things in common is going to be vital for creating a sustainable society. There are lots of things that we could share more – anything that is used occasionally, like power tools, skis, or tuxedos. Items that are used for a short periods of time are also worth holding in community, like the prams and car seats and baby clothes that already circulate through ebay and freecycle.

Because everything is cheap, everyone has their own and we fill our houses and then have to pay for storage. So much of our consumption is subsidised by cheap oil and cheap labour. As oil reserves decline, and as countries develop and raise wages, prices will rise. Our globalised production networks will no longer make economic sense in a world of expensive oil, and everything will be more expensive. We’re going to have to learn to share.

We should be protecting public space too. Too much of our urban space is commercialised, reserved for consumption. Even London buskers have to be approved and play in a designated, Carling-sponsored patch of the floor. Public spaces where people can mix and spend time are few and far between, but are vital for a sense of community. Community erodes when nothing is shared, because we just don’t meet each other. If you’ve ever lamented the loss of a community feel in your area, ride a bus, or use a launderette. There’s no doubt that having your own car or your own washing machine is more convenient, but there’s a social price for that. The more shared space and shared services, the more reasons we have to interact, the stronger the community will be.

So let’s protect our libraries, but let’s also roll out new ways of lending and swapping. Join , see if there’s a near you, and get the ball rolling by asking if you can borrow something from a neighbour. Let’s explore new ways of sharing too. I really liked the idea of , a kind of free library service for London commuters, but it appears to have run out of steam. I know at least a couple of Transition Towns that have tool libraries – here’s one (non-transition) . Spain’s is a neat re-invention of the library, making it easy to pop in on the way through a station. I remember an issue of Adbusters that suggested building a shed on the boundary line between gardens, with a door on each side, and sharing garden tools with your neighbours.

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