On Sunday, 18 April, a small fire on Table Mountain was whipped by high winds into an enormous blaze. It spread quickly to the nearby campus of the University of Cape Town, where embers set alight the roof of the African Studies Library and burned to ashes a significant amount of the world’s rarest and most valuable collections of African media. You could watch it all pretty much live: the family WhatsApp group beaming out the incineration of what you had foolishly believed to be enduring. While the full extent of the damage is still not known, there has been a grim inventory of losses: the Jagger Reading Room was gutted, along with 70,000 books, a collection of government records from across the continent, and the entire African Studies Film Collection.
Contrary to some assumptions, libraries have not closed during the current pandemic. The entrenched view of libraries is that they are just physical places where communities come together to access knowledge. Covid-19 has upended these assumptions. The question, for all libraries, as the crisis was unfolding in March, was whether we would support our communities better by staying open and continuing to provide the services that need the physical spaces to operate, or by closing, as libraries are busy places where the disease could easily spread, affecting frontline library staff as well as users.
Established by the Polish government-in-exile in 1942, London’s Polish Library has been housed at the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK) in Hammersmith since 1974. Its holdings include a substantial collection of samizdat.
My parents were self-made immigrants who never completed their secondary education. Displaced by war and poverty, their families survived by focusing on food and such inflation-proof assets as diamonds and property. The material plenitude my parents showered on their children did not include books because, as my father once asked about poetry, what was the point? My parents didn't get libraries, though they appreciated that they were free, while being disturbed that library books, like the handrails on public staircases we were warned not to touch, bore the imprints of countless strange and unhygienic hands.
Birmingham City Council has unveiled its proposed budget cuts for 2015-16, including substantial reductions to funding for the Library of Birmingham, the £189 million project that opened in September 2013 and within a year was facing a financial black hole. Weekly opening hours are to be cut from 73 to 40, and around 100 of the 188 staff will lose their jobs.
The Library of Birmingham was overlooked for the Stirling Prize last month in favour of the remodelled Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. But missing out on architectural prizes may be the least of the library’s problems. The Council optimistically budgeted for more than £1 million a year of charitable donations; the shortfall this year could be as much as £713,000. Cuts of £500,000 to the library's services are pencilled in for next year (running costs are around £10 million), with more to follow if the rest of the deficit can't be made up from charity.
Somewhere in the inner recesses of the British Library is a place called the Z Safe. The physical safe doesn’t exist anymore, though it did when the national bibliographic collection was housed in the British Museum. In those days it was a Chubb strong room beneath the west stairs in the Department of Manuscripts. Now, ‘Z Safe’ is a category given to the most valuable manuscripts, but I like to imagine it as still an actual place, a holy tabernacle in the bibliophiles’ temple.
When Manchester Corporation launched a public competition to design a new library in 1926, the idea of a large, modern, purpose-built library in the city was more than two decades old. At the start of the 20th century it was proposed that an art gallery and library should be built on the site of the demolished Royal Infirmary in Piccadilly. ‘The working classes are daily becoming more important in our democracy,’ William Boyd Dawkins wrote to the Manchester Courier. ‘Have we given them equal opportunities of obtaining the higher knowledge which is within the reach of the well-to-do classes?’
The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other 'small items', such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn't take fire as it has now. I don't know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.
Perhaps the best thing about Birmingham’s newest civic building on Centenary Square is what they’ve called it. No beating about the bush, no equivocation: it’s a library. After all the weasel words – ‘idea stores’, ‘learning centres’, ‘discovery centres’ – it’s cheering to see the book is back. Though the loudly trumpeted opening, set against what the Library Campaign reckons is a 25 per cent loss of public libraries since 2009, just the beginning of a terrible cull, bears out the questionable orthodoxy that, as with hospitals, bigger is better.
In 1857 Prosper Mérimée went to London to see Anthony Panizzi’s new Reading Room at the British Museum. As the head of the commission charged with transforming the Parisian national library, Mérimée was hugely impressed by what he saw: the top lighting, the drum-form and the integrated, orderly systems, all designed for a general reading public, not just a few clerics, rulers and their acolytes, the previous users of the great libraries of Europe.
At the end of last month, it was decided that the archive of the Women's Library was to move from a university in the East End to a university in central London. 'LSE saves Women's Library from closure,' the Guardian announced. London Met needs to save money; LSE has room in the new library it's building – nothing could be more practical. All that will be lost is a purpose-built, award-winning, lottery-funded building that has been standing for only ten years (and which may turn out to be worth more demolished). Woolf wasn’t joking when she said a room of one’s own needed ‘a lock on the door’.
Speak Up for Libraries, 'a coalition of organisations and campaigners working to protect libraries and library staff, now and in the future', is lobbying Parliament this afternoon. Anyone who needs reminding what's at stake could reread Alan Bennett's piece published in the LRB last July:
The Society of Authors has a petition to ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not to cut the Public Lending Right (which gives writers sixpence every time one of their books is taken out of a library) in next month's Spending Review. 'Any and all writers who feel strongly about this subject' should sign it, they say. Is it too much to hope that a few readers might care about PLR too? Anyway, the 'Statement by Authors' is as follows and writers can sign it here:
You know the way John Wayne was hopelessly typecast, forever the cowboy, never Hamlet – who knows how vast a range he might have had? Well, so it's beginning to seem to be for me and penguins. One of these days I'm going to branch out and give my attention to spaniels, or water buffalo, but in the meantime, those gay broody penguins I've mentioned before, who were given their own egg in a zoo, are the subjects of a children's book, And Tango Makes Three which has made it to the top of the American Library Association's list of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2008. Challenged, as in: take that filth of the shelves.
Haifa al-Khalidi says that she's not a librarian. Fine. But the al-Khalidi collection on 116 Bab al-Silsilah Street in the old city of Jerusalem doesn't pretend to be anything other than a library so maybe Haifa simply means she's not a scholar, even if she's now acquainted with a thousand rare manuscripts and many more works in print that are housed here. One of the first she shows us is a beautifully decorated Arabic translation of a work on poisons and remedies by a 12th-century Indian physician. (Later I learn it contains a tale about metabolic resistance and how it's possible, carefully and slowly, to administer a poison to a subject whose antibodies enable him to survive, even though someone else who touches him will die.