The North West London Blues is a beautiful essay by author Zadie Smith in defense of, although more like an ode to, libraries and library preservation. It’s quite disheartening that libraries are on the endangered species list of educational and cultural outlets and are being disregarded and tossed aside due to budget cuts. It’s sad that libraries are forced to prove their relevance in the form of numbers and stats. Libraries are about free and open education and information resources, about books, stories, imagination and creativity. When did all that disappear and turn into number crunching? Why did it happen?
I include an excerpt from the essay regarding libraries, but please make sure to read the entire essay which you can find on the New York Review of Books here.
What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library—also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park—is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.
All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.
A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.