Save Our Libraries – How Tragic That This Is Even An Issue (a Speech by Philip Pullman Provides Quite a Rallying Cry)

In the process of doing my own thesis – not for a Ph.D., because I never took a graduate degree, but just my undergraduate honors thesis — the single most formative experience in my career took place.  It was not a tutor or a teacher or a fellow student or a great book or the shining example of some famous visiting lecturer – like Sir Charles Webster, for instance, brilliant as he was.  It was the stacks at Widener.
Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History


The ripple effects of problems, and decisions, are many, and significant.

Take the current fiscal crisis, leading to so many budget cuts for such local services as Public Libraries.

I understand fiscal realities.  But I also understand that when you cut one place, it might lead to problems elsewhere.  This country has a growing sense of a great  “education” crisis.  This country has a growing sense of crisis for those who have not been able to find a job.  Many have to learn new things, develop new skills.  Some of these people need a place to look and learn because of their desperation…

These crises are intimately tied to the health of a good public library.

And…  don’t forget that there is just the simple human need for discovery, and books have met that need for generations of curious people.

Philip Pullman, British Author -- defender of Public Libraries

These are just a few of my thoughts after I read about a remarkable speech by a British writer.  The author is Philip Pullman, who wrote Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America – if you haven’t read the book, you may know of the movie). I read about it in this article from The Guardian: Philip Pullman’s call to defend libraries resounds around web:  Impassioned polemic against closures picked up by thousands of readers.

I then read his speech: Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value. Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech, which we are very pleased to co-publish with openDemocracy.

It is a resounding attack on the budget cuts aimed at libraries, and a serious call for keeping the public library alive.  Yes, he has a political point of view that might not align with many readers of this blog (e.g. — should market forces alone decide who gets published?),  but…but…  what would it mean to cut our libraries to shadows of that they were?, or possibly even lose them entirely?

Here are some excerpts from his speech:

Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries…

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

When I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens in the republic of learning. Only the public library can give them that gift.

This speech is a wonderful testimony to the value of reading – and especially the value of reading by wandering around in a place filled with a seemingly limitless numbers of books.

This blog would not exist without books.  I make my living by reading books, which provide the fuel for all of my presentations (as it did for many/most of my sermons for the first 20 years of my adult/professional life).  I love books.  I love rooms full of books.

If you have an ounce of appreciation for books, please read this speech.  (Be sure to note his powerful defense of librarians).  And then ask, what can we do to not only save our public libraries, but to make them even stronger?

I hope it is not a losing battle.

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