In defence of Headington library

Headington library protest in the snowI was sorry to hear of the planned closure of Headington public library, which it seems is to suffer the same fate as much of Oxfordshire’s precious network of community libraries. I grew up in Cowley, and as a child spent inordinate amounts of time at Temple Cowley library. I believe it was the facilities there that developed my confidence in an ability to tackle just about anything, in the belief that even if I didn’t know about it I knew where I could find out.

Such resources are incredibly important to growing children. The quest for knowledge in young minds soon outpaces the parents’ ability to satisfy it. Which is why the libraries are so important and why the internet and the web have become such valuable tools today. In my time it was the printed book – today it is the electronic screen. But while the media may have changed – the purpose has not.

The community libraries were established as a means of improving education across Britain. And now, this valuable community service is to be slashed? Are the coffers so empty that we have to regress to the level of a third-class nation? I cannot believe that in the 21st Century a country that has built a worldwide reputation is closing the doors and pulling down the shutters. Because this is what shutting libraries means to me.

The administrators say that we will still have the central services, that Oxford central and Cowley are sufficient for the city. But for a school-age child a trip from Headington to Carfax, with time in the library, represents a time commitment of 3-4 hours minimum. It is nothing like as convenient, or even as possible in school term, as walking to the local library.

The naysayers will say that, ‘Ah, but kids use the internet these days.’ But they do not! The internet is a wonderful resource – with the training or experience in where to find the right information. But many people, and especially children without some kind of guidance, are unlikely to find the jewels among the acres of dross that make up the web. And they are far too likely to be distracted by the bright lights of FaceBook, YouTube and similar sites.

I live in Brussels, and having travelled a fair bit see all too clearly what happens in a society where public libraries are poorly resourced or missing altogether. A whole society suffers. Generations grow up, not just lacking any understanding of or love for literature, but without even the knowledge of where to go for or how to seek out answers. This is low expectation – what you’ve never had you’ll never miss.

Over the years my career has changed not once but several times. And throughout those changes, I have been able to go to the public library whenever I needed information on an area where I had no experience. Even in these days of the internet, a professionally trained librarian can help find answers faster than the web. How different would my life have been without such resources to rely on?

Critics may say that present-day county libraries are too small, with too limited resources. So what are we to do? Give them up as lost? Accept that our fates are likely to be poorer and grimier? Is that the advice of our esteemed county councillors? They I say perhaps it is time for a new set of councillors who have been out in the world a bit more.

I am of course biased, but I still think that Britain’s place in the world is a bit special. Not because of empire or past glories. But because of attitudes, because of an ability to go out and do things, to achieve! What gives that kind of confidence? Information, the source of all good decision-making.

So I say, do not abandon the county libraries such as Headington library at Bury Knowle. They are a critical part of the process of developing intellectual confidence from an early age, of developing skills and abilities that can last a lifetime.

Do not close, but find a way to expand the libraries. Improve and update their resources. Keep that rare and valuable creature the trained librarian. Invest in this small, unlauded corner of British life that is so fundamental to the success of a nation.

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© Philip Hunt, 2010

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