“It is a great pity that there should be so many distinct enemies at work for the destruction of literature, and that they should so often be allowed to work out their sad end.”
So said William Blades, author of the 1880 work The Enemies of Books. Of course, this was written 130 years ago, around the time that the Royal Library of the Kings of Burma was looted and burned by my countrymen the British. We live in an age of information, where we treasure our ability to access knowledge and art at the click of a button. We respect the way in which learning can enhance our lives, bolster our economies. Books have always been symbolic of that.
And yet somewhere along the line, it became politically acceptable to throw all this on the fire. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m sure that, a few years ago, there would have been no major need for the Voices for the Library campaign, or for similar campaigns across the States. The destruction – twice now – of Occupy Wall Street’s ‘People’s Library’ (which I wrote about yesterday) is somehow symbolic of this, and while yesterday I was putting it down to a cack-handed clear-out of the protestors’ belongings, well… To destroy a library once may be an accident, to destroy it twice looks like malice.
And yet at the same time as this we’re trumpeting the availability of information digitally. This seems to be a paradox – celebrating access to information in one format while destroying it in others – but it’s not. Libraries are being closed to save money, but there doesn’t seem to be much thought given to those who can’t afford to buy books, or that several major towns don’t have much in the way of a decent bookshop. No, we live in a world where the internet is sexy and the local library isn’t, so the answer to all our prayers is online.
Never mind that the information literacy skills that we all need to navigate the foaming rapids and the dark corners of the internet are part of a good librarian’s skill set. Never mind that libraries help bridge the digital divide. Never mind that Google searches and online bookstores increasingly act as an echo chamber for our existing preconceptions rather than challenging them. No, everything’s online now, it’s a utopia on your smart phone.
But wait – we’re not allowed free access to information. That’s why yesterday was American Censorship Day, campaigning for internet freedom. That’s why, after the riots that swept the UK a couple of months ago, David Cameron suggested that Government have the power to temporarily shut down Twitter and Facebook (a spectacular case of treating the symptom rather the cause). That’s why, during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street a couple of days ago, the press were under a media blackout.
All this is starting to look like a conspiracy theory. I don’t think it is, not exactly; rather it’s a conspiracy that’s developed by mistake. Certainly no-one’s going to stand for office saying “I want to close all public libraries and sue little kids singing Lady Gaga songs on Youtube” without getting laughed at in derision. And yet this is what’s happening, because we’ve entered the Information Age via the grassroots and authority figures – politicains, police, media, business – prove again and again that they just aren’t evolving quick enough to keep up with that. On one side of the atlantic, leaders want to turn off social media as and when they deem it necessary; on the other, media blackouts are enacted but everyone in charge of them forgets that anyone with an iPhone and access to Twitter becomes a citizen journalist. Governments want to develop the skills of their workers in a more high-tech working environment, but parallel to this they make it more difficult to get the information that acts as a foundation for education.
The destruction of libraries becomes a totem for all this, particularly the People’s Library – a grassroots initiative stamped upon by the blundering feet of authority figures who don’t quite get what they’re dealing with. Everyone says they respect books – information, art – but put them in the wrong place, make them inconvenient or too ‘expensive’ and suddenly they’re moved out of the way. Next to that, we see a whole bunch of other manufactured ‘controversies’ that purport to be about information and knowledge but really aren’t – Obama’s birth certificate, immigration, climate change, vaccines causing autism. These are really about ideology, and that’s why we need the information literacy tools to respond effectively.
That’s why we need books.
That’s why we need librarians.