Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The importance of libraries

In his lecture for the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman made an impassioned argument for the place and value of libraries in fostering reading for pleasure, a literate and critical citizenry and our collective imagination. This just confirmed it for me: libraries are not an add-on or a lucky extra, but essential. Without libraries as places of thought, of escape, of knowledge, our society would be that much poorer and we can't afford that in a country like South Africa.

Gaiman also reiterated the function libraries have in opening the world of reading to children, a subject that is very close to my heart. He stated, "We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy." I really like this way of describing that incredible and amazing climb into the literary world. So many don't make it all the way up, to that breath-taking place where you find yourself savouring a vantage point that will forever change you in some way. And that is sad.

He also spoke about how fiction builds empathy. Watching TV doesn't come close to the raw intimacy of reading, of being in someone else's head where you reach that indeterminable point somewhere in the midst of a narrative and notions of "I" and "you" break down.  He stated, "When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed."

Empathy and knowledge, and the freedom to delve into them, are what stops history repeating itself. What could be more essential than that? Gaiman's argument builds strong links between the existence of libraries and an informed and active citizenry because it is ultimately through reading and imagining alternatives that we can bring about social change. Within a world that is becoming more and more digital, Gaiman hews out an important and unassailable place for public libraries. He puts it: "Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood. Libraries really are the gates to the future."

South Africa may not have grand libraries, spaces that sweep and impress, but the books are there with whole worlds contained between thousands and thousands of covers. Of course things could be better, more money could be spent, upgraded, grown, improved. That shouldn't be disputed, but my point is more that I know of few people who regularly attend the libraries we do have. I hear complaints stacked like a pile of reasons against the doors. Those more fortunate buy their own books, those not interested don't know where the local library is, and those somewhere on the edges drift between "not enough new books" or "I'm too busy" or "it's just not that inviting" and never quite make it through the doors.

And so libraries as open, public spaces as Gaiman describes them, are undermined.

Why don't more people go to the library? Because precisely by not going, we are active in justifying the lower budgets, the growing shabbiness and even worse, contradicting the very message of books, namely that reading publicly is important and that books are our escape and our solution.


  1. I recently read about a 12-year-old boy in Utah who was so desperate to read he asked his postman for more junk mail. He couldn't afford the bus fare to the library. The postman put his story on Facebook and the boy began receiving books from all over the world. Now he has his own library of more than 500 books.

    My parents didn't read to us when we were young, but we were taken to the public library every Saturday. I am glad I have built my own collection of beloved books over the years because, sometimes, the sheer number of choices at the library feels overwhelming. Even so, if there is no one to hurry me along, I could spend hours browsing a library or bookstore looking for that volume that might knock me off my feet.

    1. I can relate, I'm a little bit the same - so many books, so many choices! But the search for interesting reading is always well spent.

  2. I actually have this fabulous little browser plug-in that lets me know when a book I'm looking at on Amazon is also available at my local library. As much as I love my library, sometimes it's too easy to just buy books at the click of a button, so it's good to get that friendly reminder that I could get it for free just around the corner. I love libraries. There's so much opportunity there, and I have such fond memories of going every week when I was a child. :) And it's always nice to know that the library is there for me should I need it. I was unemployed for a while about five years ago, and having free reading material was one of the things that made it less depressing.

    1. Hi Kaitlin
      Thanks for your comment. That's exactly the thing: libraries are there, fulfilling such an important role, free and accessible to all and part of such good childhood memories for so many!



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