TAITMAIL De Waal: viciousness of library cuts not just about books

The bibliophile, award-winning author and artist Edmund De Waal has made a Library of Exile, as AI reported this week, as an installation for the Venice Biennale. But what we are doing to our own libraries he says is simply vicious.

The only part of our culture local authorities are obliged to fund is libraries. They don’t have to provide museums or galleries, theatres or cinemas, concert halls or dance houses, but libraries are a statutory responsibility.  Yet last year alone over 130 of them closed in Britain, more and more of them being run by volunteers, 3,000 more having been recruited in 2018.
According to Cipfa, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, this has been repeated every year since 2010. Since then at least 478 libraries have gone, and the number of books held by the survivors has dropped by 14m, while librarian numbers have been cut by around 8,000.

In 2018 alone council spending on libraries fell by £30m to £741m.

Increasingly our libraries are being run by volunteers. In 2010 around ten libraries were in the hands of unpaid helpers; by 2017 around 500 were. Last year 712 more full-time librarians left and more of our libraries are being run by 51,394 volunteers. 

De Waal is an affable, mild-mannered man, a man who knows his own library of 2,000 volumes all written by exiles of one sort or another opening next week in Venice’s fabulous Ateneo Veneto will have books stolen, but who is content because the material is getting out to a new audience wherever it ends up.

Getting rid of books from the public domain angers him, though - he quotes from Heine’s play Almansor:  "Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings". A celebrated ceramicist, his South London studio is notable for its lack of art on display, yet everywhere there are books. 

But the closure of libraries infuriates him. “To close a library in a community is one of the most vicious, violent things you can do to a community” he tells me. “To take away all that space for reflection is often to take away the only silent spaces children have in their lives at all”. There’s been a story recently about Newcastle libraries closing and thereby depriving kids of a quiet place to do their homework, but he says it’s more than that.

Because children too often come from chaotic homes, and libraries can be their only place of tranquillity. Libraries, he says, are really internal spaces because you’re alone in there, but it’s also a social space too because when you’re reading a book in a library you're are surrounded by all the other book voices there. 
“You’re saying something so profound when you close a library, about not trusting, not investing in plurality, in possibility, you’re homogenising the experience for families and children, you’re breaking things down into an immediate moment. It's truly terrible.”


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