Libraries: Cathedrals of Our Souls

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.
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This piece was previously published in The Times of London, and is included in Caitlin Moran's new book, Moranthology ($14.99, Harper Perennial).

Home educated and, by seventeen, writing for a living, the only alma mater I have ever had is Warstones Library, Pinfold Grove, Wolverhampton.

A low, red-brick box on grass that verged on wasteland, I would be there twice a day--rocking up with all the ardor of a clubber turning up to a rave. I read every book in there--not really, of course, but as good as: when I'd read all the funny books, I moved on to the sexy ones, then the dreamy ones, the mad ones; the ones that described distant mountains, idiots, plagues, experiments. I sat at the big table and read all the papers: in public housing in Wolverhampton, the broadsheets are as incongruous and illuminating as an Eames lamp.

The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books--but they were, of course, really doors: each book-lid opened as exciting as Alice putting her gold key in the lock. I spent days running in and out of other worlds like a time bandit, or a spy. I was as excited as I've ever been in my life, in that library: scoring new books the minute they came in; ordering books I'd heard of--then waiting, fevered, for them to arrive, like they were the word Christmas. I had to wait nearly a year for Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire to come: even so, I was still too young to think it anything but a bit wanky, and abandoned it twenty pages in for Jilly Cooper. But Fleurs du Mal, man! In a building overlooked by a Kwiksave where the fags and alcohol were kept in a locked, metal cage, lest they be stolen! Simply knowing I could have it in my hand was a comfort, in this place so very very far from anything extraordinary or exultant.

Everything I am is based on this ugly building on its lonely lawn--lit up during winter darkness; open in the slashing rain--which allowed a girl so poor she didn't even own a purse to come in twice a day and experience actual magic: traveling through time, making contact with the dead--Dorothy Parker, Stella Gibbons, Charlotte Brontë, Spike Milligan.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate "need" for "stuff." A mall--the shops--are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy's taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.

Last month, after protest, an injunction was granted to postpone library closures in Somerset. In September, both Somerset and Gloucestershire councils will be the subject of a full judicial review over their closure plans. As the cuts kick in, protesters and lawyers are fighting for individual libraries like villagers pushing stranded whales back into the sea. A library is such a potent symbol of a town's values: each one closed down might as well be six thousand stickers plastered over every available surface, reading "WE CHOSE TO BECOME MORE STUPID AND DULL."

While I have read a million words on the necessity for the cuts, I have not seen a single letter on what the exit plan is: what happens in four years' time, when the cuts will have succeeded, and the economy gets back to "normal" again. Do we then--prosperous once more--go round and re-open all these centers, clinics and libraries, which have sat, dark and unused, for nearly half a decade? It's hard to see how--it costs millions of pounds to re-open deserted buildings, and cash-strapped councils will have looked at billions of square feet of prime real estate with a coldly realistic eye. Unless the government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and insisted councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to "normal" again, our Victorian and post-war and 1960s red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.

And, in their place, we will have thousands more public spaces where you are simply the money in your pocket, rather than the hunger in your heart. Kids--poor kids--will never know the fabulous, benign quirk of self-esteem of walking into "their" library and thinking, "I have read 60 percent of the books in here. I am awesome." Libraries that stayed open during the Blitz will be closed by budgets.

A trillion small doors closing.

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