November 17, 2017

Listening to the British and Mozart

I want to talk to you about the British, Mozart, and the war on libraries.

First, the British. They have an undeniable panache for democracy. We’ve all seen the broadcasts from the well of the House of Commons where the Prime Minister has to actually think on his feet, responding to challenging queries from the opposition sitting close by.

It is such a refreshing contrast to the stultifying theater of politics in our own country, such as the State of the Union address, where our leaders are never really forced to engage in quick-witted and relevant debate.

Or take the British version of the “war on terror.” Somehow they are able to prosecute it while neither detaining people indefinitely nor suspending habeas corpus, that cornerstone of Anglo-American jurisprudence which American politicians like George W. Bush or Barack Obama seem to have no compunction about flouting.

But the most relevant example is the ongoing war over libraries that is raging in the United Kingdom. Granted, it’s a smaller country, so they can, perhaps, more easily mount a concerted defense of libraries in the face of massive cuts, but the efforts, nevertheless, are impressive for their creativity, their eloquence, and their organization.

The spur has been the British government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, which fixed budgets for fiscal years 2011-12 to 2014-15. The plan includes a budget cut of 50 percent for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which funds libraries. Hundreds of libraries are threatened with closure and as many as one quarter, or 6000, library positions, could be eliminated, Annie Maugher, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), told the Guardian in December.

The opposition has been furious and unremitting.

Take the town of Stony-Stratford, where the library may close in April.  The residents of the town not only created a Facebook page to rally support for the library, but they coordinated a wonderfully creative response, as the Guardian reported, by having every library user in town check out their full complement of 15 books the week of January 9. By the end of the week, the library shelves stood empty, a symbol of what the future would look like in Stony-Stratford if the library were to close.

Or take Philip Pullman, the author of the Dark Materials trilogy. He attended a library campaigners’ meeting in Oxfordshire this month and let forth an eloquent howl in defense of libraries:

“That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?”

Then there is the organized national call to action. The CILIP recently endorsed Save Our Libraries Day on February 5, and they are asking all supporters to tweet why that love libraries on that day, using the hash mark #savelibraries. The CILIP site provides any number of useful links to better coordinate the campaign, including this site which has an interactive map of library cuts (similar to Library Journal’s Losing Libraries.).

In the United States, the stakes are no less high but the response sometimes falls short of this British piquancy. Perhaps it’s just an accident of geography, but I can’t help but feel — despite the equally passionate love of libraries here and the efforts of many in their defense — that sometimes we are too accommodating, too bland, too “bipartisan” when faced with our butchers. It’s a time for sharp tongues and confrontation.

As for Mozart, whose birthday was yesterday, just remember that these are increasingly benighted times, as evidenced by the unremitting attacks on our libraries, and it always helps to listen to what Mozart has to say. He never fails to offer sensitivity in the face of crudeness, and meaning amidst the madness.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Library Journal, Kathleen Wynd, carly miller, Ihtesham Rashid, CILIP Info & Advice and others. CILIP Info & Advice said: RT @LibraryJournal With verve & eloquence British defend their libraries http://bit.ly/ggFSib Shelves emptied, authors exhort #savelibraries […]