We cannot let this be the final chapter for libraries

The Coatbridge of my childhood had four corners: The school, the church, the video store, and the public library. Today, only the church survives and the status of religion being what it is, I wonder for how much longer that will be.

My school, St Ambrose High School, the educational pride of the Lanarkshire town, has since been demolished and rebuilt less than half a mile away. The brutalist hodge-podge of towers and squat blocks wasn’t much to look at but it was where I learned to love and to fear, to see the world for what it is and take every chance I could find in it. Six of my most formative years are now a railway station car park.

Ritz Video, which later became Blockbuster until that icon of 1990s entertainment went the way of the VHS tape, made me a movie buff and supplied my habit every Saturday evening, sometimes with Disney wholesomeness but more often than not with karate chop capers and scarier movies than I had any business watching at that age. Across the street sat the Whifflet public library, hugging the corner of a rundown shopping precinct as though ashamed of its reduced circumstances. Its closure in 2010, amid a merger dreamed up by a bureaucrat with fingers more used to punching calculators than turning pages, felt like a shutter pulled down on my childhood.

Whifflet was no Boston Public Library or Bibliothèque nationale de France. It was a tiny, one-level job with a poky enclave dedicated to children’s books and it was where I retreated every inevitably wet Saturday morning. In that rain-lashed cove, I met Tom Sawyer and he introduced me to his friend Huck. If I sat a while longer, Beatrix Potter’s mischievous kit Peter would come hopping along. The March sisters took me into their home; they shared with me their adventures and I shared their grief when the fever took Beth. I tagged along with the Famous Five as they cracked mysteries and rumbled smugglers, pausing only to slake their thirst from jars of home-made ginger beer. When I was a little older and feeling braver, RL Stine would coax me into one of his Hallowe’en horrors but those weren’t the reason I slept with the light on. No, I just wanted to see my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Yes… that was it…

Eventually I put away childish books but I never forgot the joy they brought me. Those quiet revelations that thrill the juvenile mind; the beginnings of understanding the mash of contradictions that is the world around you. Those books brought the breathless possibility of adulthood and a life beyond the tedium and regimen of school. (If only I knew.)

These memories came back to me last week after the campaigning teacher James McEnaney uncovered the state of school libraries in Scotland. What he found made for dismal reading. Using freedom of information laws, he revealed that 39 percent of primary schools have no dedicated library — and 99 percent have no librarian, full time or part time. Mr McEnaney found a better regime in secondary schools, over 90 per cent of which have a library, but there are concerns here too: One in six high schools have no dedicated librarian.

It comes after the latest Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed more decline in reading and writing attainment in our schools. The same report revealed that only 15 percent of primary seven pupils visit a public library very often; the figure drops to one in ten for those in secondary two. The inevitable result is that only a third of primary sevens read fiction for pleasure and around one in five do the same when they get to the second year of high school.

Libraries are not sexy. They do not command front pages and TV news bulletins. Nevertheless, their decline is an emergency in the cultural life of our country and the educational futures of children.

Investment is crucial; both school and public libraries are starved of resources. But investment isn’t always about money and poverty takes many forms. Less than 40 percent of primary four pupils say someone at home reads with them often; the figure is just over a third for households where this ‘sometimes’ happens and a quarter where it never happens. Parents, not just teachers, have a responsibility to introduce children to books and encourage their interest. No child should leave primary school unable to read but they shouldn’t go there in that condition either.

We could issue every school pupil in Scotland a Kindle chock-full of the finest that children’s literature has to offer — and a smattering of the classics too. Off they would go, tablet in hand, and return well-read and eager for more. However, it doesn’t work like that in most cases and even in the cases where it does, there is an inescapable sense in which the child has missed out. Libraries are shared spaces that cannot be replicated with the swipe of a finger across pixels. They are places of discovery, a million eureka moments hiding between hardcovers. Libraries are designed to encourage promiscuity in readers, the act of scouring shelves for a favourite title routinely interrupted by the temptations of other books and authors, new and old.

The idea of a physical place lined with rows of shelves, mapped by a curious numerical system that baffles you as much at fifty as at five, might seem quaint to young readers, used to downloading the latest Jacqueline Wilson or Lauren Child straight to their smartphone. While websites like Amazon have devised clever algorithms to recommend titles based on users’ reading habits, none have been able to replicate those first uncertain steps from the children’s section across to the young adult shelves and later from there to crime or thrillers or literature. Amazon sells us the books we want; libraries offer us the reading experience we deserve.

Matthew Arnold believed culture was ‘the great help out of our present difficulties’ and recommended the learning of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. That is the unspoken mission statement of the library. The habit, once lost, will prove difficult to resurrect. If we let it die out we are not simply retiring a tradition; we are engaging in cultural vandalism and intergenerational theft.

In the next three weeks, you might get a knock at the door from one of your election candidates. Don’t bother asking them about independence or Brexit; they’re expecting it and will have canned responses at the ready. Ask something that will throw them. Ask them about libraries.

*****

Ian Duncan is having a good election campaign. The Tory MEP hopes to replace retired keyboard player Pete Wishart as MP for Perth and North Perthshire.

That will be no easy task. Mr Wishart boasts a 10,000 majority and is never out of the local paper. Sometimes, it’s even good news.

Mr Wishart is a prodigious user of social media and is known to become more opinionated as the evening wears on. The election has him on his best behaviour – he’s managed not to call his opponents ‘w***s’ for at least a fortnight.

Mr Duncan has a slightly more Perthshire temperament but he’s no pushover. Last week, a Nationalist demanded on Twitter: ‘What school did he go to? What club does he frequent? Which hunt does he ride with?’ The reply: ‘Alyth High School… My mum was a school cleaner, my father a mechanic. Raised on a council scheme. Any more questions?’

I’m told he’s popular on the doorstep. I can see why

*****

Jeremy Corbyn says Britain hasn’t fought a just war since 1945. In that time, we have saved Greece and Malaysia from communism, liberated the Falklands from a fascist junta, driven Saddam from Kuwait, stopped genocide in Kosovo and rescued Sierra Leone, to name a few. There is only one task Corbyn is less fit for than being Prime Minister, and that’s tying our soldiers’ bootlaces.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

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