In June, Zadie Smith attempted to express in words how it feels to repeatedly defend the idea of public libraries, only to find your earnest and seemingly watertight arguments have made little impact on the run of things. “There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on,” she wrote. “A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”
While Smith was sitting at her laptop (on a crowded desk in an American library), the then Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt was busy rolling out a £125m advertising campaign aimed at promoting all that is “Great” about Britain. “Knowledge is GREAT”, “Heritage is GREAT”, “Creativity is GREAT” ran posters hanging from the walls of Grand Central Station in New York. Union Jack-clad subway trains rumbled through the tunnels below. The message was repeated in cities worldwide.
In this instance, “knowledge”, “heritage” and “creativity” exist as marketable items – buzzwords, wheeled out in an effort to promote tourism to the UK. They are not elements of British life valued beyond their ability to generate revenue. If they were, why would Newcastle council be faced with enforcing a 100 per cent cut in arts funding, and why would it be talking about closing the majority of its libraries?
The culture which predicated this year of flag-spasming jingoism (QED Boris Johnson on the games: “Yesterday I cycled down the canal towpath to the Olympic Park, through Hackney; and everywhere I looked there were scenes of riparian merriment of the kind you expect to see at the Henley regatta”), is built of delicate stuff. Earlier in the week, representatives from 23 British theatres argued that “a modest but sustained investment in the arts has had an incalculable effect on the country.” Nicholas Hytner, Creative Director at the National Theatre, said the government’s default promise to encourage arts giving was nothing but “a smokescreen”. He enquired how private funding was to be secured in poorer areas beyond London. “These are not communities where there is space cash floating around. Where are the super-rich of Bolton, for example?” The same arguments have been bandied around with reference to our GREAT universities.
Some of the products of a “modest but sustained” arts investment since the 1950s were archived in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Boyle, whose own interest in theatre might never have emerged if not for a job as an usher at the (state-sponsored) Octagon Theatre in Bolton, said that such organisations “create communities, and these communities come together and make these big works of art like the opening ceremony.” The bottom line, with theatre as with libraries, galleries and museums, is that “they provide something else to believe in … something in our cities and towns that isn’t Wetherspoons and Walkabout pubs and Mario Balotelli and John Terry.”
Across the globe, a history of private financial mismanagement and greed has been successfully repackaged into a reality in which an undeserving public forced the state to overspend and kamikaze into recession. This fallacy is now largely uncontested. The novelist Jeanette Winterson has proposed one way in which the companies who have gained most from doing business in Britain, might repay their debt to the public. Invoking the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, whose red-brick libraries, purposefully built with ascending stairs, a lantern near the door and the motto “let there be light”, Winterson argued:
“Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to legally avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries”.
For the price of a Starbucks franchise and a “take this book home without returning it for only £6.78 online at…” insert on the back page, it’s an interesting proposition. But the kind of paternalistic “big ideas” conservatism which encouraged philanthropy for the public good is a thing of the past. Neo-liberal austerity thinking does not require any such commitment.
Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, Northern Stage, Tyneside Cinema and Seven Stories are some of the institutions may loose 100 per cent of council funding. This does not mean they would fold, necessarily, but it does destabilise their efforts. The Theatre Royal would lose more than £500,000 annually. Chief executive Philip Bernays has pointed out, “we play to audiences about 15% above the national average, so we’re almost as successful as it’s possible to be … such a cult would almost certainly have an impact on the level of service we can offer or the programme that we can provide.”
Of the 18 libraries on Tyneside, only the Central Library is safe. This means that smaller, suburban libraries such as Jesmond – which provides internet access, local history resources, space for community groups, reading groups, lifelong learning courses and, of course, freely available books – are likely to be sold off to developers, despite the fact so many of them are less than 15 years old.
Zadie Smith expressed her frustration at having to write a long newspaper article to defend public libraries. “What kind of a problem is a library?” she asked. The services they provide, as places of free education, pleasure and community focus (perhaps the only indoor space available to enjoy without being expected to open your wallet), do not provide obvious financial benefits, and are therefore expendable. Local authors in the north east have written an open letter to the council, saying: “It is the young and the elderly who disproportionately depend on branch libraries. The cost in educational underachievement would far outweigh any savings made by cuts.”
But their argument, like Smith’s, will only be added to the pile. Because who, today, believes strongly enough that the people of Jesmond want, need and deserve a library? And more importantly, who believes it strongly enough to agree to pay for it, when the state no longer will?