Commentary - The death of the public library

There are no votes in books, laments Christopher Hawtreein Brighton

"On all sides I found books that fascinated me, found them by something like a sense of smell," recalled the New Statesman stalwart Walter Allen of his adolescent forays in Birmingham's City Public Library. "My great unaided discovery was Lawrence. That was in 1927, and it was seeing his novels in the library that first made me aware of his name. The very look of the books, those dark-brown squarish Secker volumes, intrigued me. I would pull one out, peep inside it, read a page or two and put it back, as though consciously deferring the excitement I sensed in it."

The thrill of that first wholesale immersion in books is never forgotten. Recourse to libraries, of all types, remains an essential part of life, even as one's home fills up with books that might never be read (a subject in itself). Apart from intermittent publicity campaigns, books - for all their delight and power - aren't deemed sexy, the stuff of votes. The denizens of public libraries have long been regarded, mistakenly, as a string-bag brigade, slinking off quietly for tea and biscuits.

Any hopes that this would change with the amplification of Chris Smith's new standards for public libraries are undermined by events in Brighton. Now merged with Hove Council, Brighton is routinely described as the government's "model" council. In fact, it has been the cause of a succession of scandals - not least by asserting that residents "can always move away" if they are unhappy.

To call Brighton a city by the sea is imprecise - Lambeth by the sea might be a more truthful description. Life in a multicultural city is the subject of Zadie Smith's vibrant, much-discussed first novel, White Teeth (Hamish Hamilton). Or so I gather - I've not yet read it. One can't buy everything, and some can't buy anything (J K Rowling couldn't for a long while). The dozen libraries across this new multicultural city have only one copy of White Teeth between them. There are no copies at all of David Underdown's scholarly and popular account of 18th-century cricket, Start of Play (Allen Lane). Of Naomi Klein's informed polemic about globalisation and corporate blandness, No Logo (Flamingo), there is now one, belated, paperback copy between 250,000 people. There are no copies of Jeremy Harding's epoch-making The Uninvited (Profile), nor of Walter Benjamin's long-awaited Arcades Project (Harvard), nor Michael Lewis's The New New Thing (Simon & Schuster) - and this in a city as obsessed by shops as it is by promoting itself as a "media village".

Some of these books came out of left field, as did Harry Potter, gradually gaining popularity through reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations. Brighton and Hove Libraries' book fund, however, is doled out month by month, which means that books are ordered in advance - by a privatised company - from the publishers' catalogues where, everything being a masterpiece, real ones can be overlooked. The system allows no leeway to catch up later - especially when, in 2000-2001, the fund was expended halfway through the financial year; within culture and regeneration, the library budget underspent by £145,000, while that for promoting Brighton overspent. Having knocked down a magnificent theatre, Brighton bids to be a European city of culture.

Ah, culture. Only in wartime has there been anything like the modern Brighton Library. Logically, ethically, it should have been allowed to wait for a new building before being turfed out of its old one so that the museum could expand. Instead, borrowers - or customers, as they are now called - are forced into a couple of cramped rooms in a dismal, downtown office block akin to a refugee camp. Small wonder that the principal librarian, dismayed at the way in which the council regards her department, has moved on after only two years in the job. Visitors from Westminster are never taken there. Chris Smith, for one, would shudder. Most books - if not already flogged off (I bought £50 worth for 40p) - have to be fetched by staff from a store.

Gone is that joy of serendipitous browsing eloquently described by Walter Allen, and, as a result, this so-called temporary set-up has wrecked a generation's chances. The chimerical new library is a matter of more disquiet, not least because the result of "public consultation" over three proposed designs was never disclosed.

Meanwhile, the Friends of Brighton and Hove Libraries has demanded that the book fund be substantially increased forthwith, otherwise the problem will be exacerbated with every passing year. The Friends' patron, William Boyd, is one of many great admirers of the work done by librarians, despite such circumstances, in their support of writers and readers. He recalled the publication of his first novel, A Good Man in Africa, now a collector's item: "It was published in an edition of 1,500 copies, when some 800 could be sold to libraries, and that provided the slim but vital financial ballast upon which a career can be built."

Boyd admires the philosopher W V Quine, who supplies the epigraph to his most recent novel, Armadillo: "How can we tell when we are right? We are faced with the problem of error." Unless the book-fund wrong is righted, Brighton's libraries cannot fill the gaps in their Quine stock. The council has, however, recently hosted a national conference on ethics and standards, which Lynette Gwyn-Jones, the council's leader, declared a success because it made a good profit - that is, it took more money than necessary off other councils. She has since stepped down, but the library scandal continues.

Christopher Hawtree is a writer and bibliophile

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men