Time for a quiet rebellion over library closures

Budget cuts put more than 375 libraries under threat. We should be outraged, says Robin Ince (but ke

Rebellion can be messy, noisy and violent. But between 12 and 15 January, there was an act of rebellion that was quiet, ordered and fabulous to behold. It took place on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, not always known for the fabulous and rebellious.

The town of Stony Stratford is the site of the first great library revolt of the 21st century. The building is under threat of closure due to council budget cuts. As a joke, a local resident suggested that people should show their support in a fitting way - by getting out their library cards and borrowing every single book on the shelves. Through word of mouth and the internet, this joke became a reality and the shelves have been politely emptied: all the books - some 16,000 in total - are now on loan.

This very British uprising has occurred because upwards of 375 public libraries are under threat of closure as a result of the local authority funding cuts coming in April. (You can see a map of the planned closures here)

The readers are restless and it's no wonder, for, as the science educator Carl Sagan said in Cosmos: "The health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries." When musing on his blindness, Jorge Luis Borges "imagined that paradise will be a kind of library".

Book worms

My first library was the mobile one that visited our village in South Hertfordshire every other Friday, where I borrowed books about the adventures of multicoloured bears. Then it was the local library, where I repeatedly took out The Making of Doctor Who and Usborne books on life in ancient Greece. As an impoverished touring stand-up, I spent my days in the city-centre libraries of Manchester and Sheffield, poring over newspapers in search of fresh inspiration for whatever cellar gig I was playing that night. Now, I sit and wait under posters of cats in hats and potty-training princesses as my three-year-old son spends hours debating which books will be in this week's ration. Libraries are threaded through my life.

They are places where we can immerse ourselves in ideas or imagine other lives and worlds. (As Groucho Marx once said: "I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book.") Mass library closures are an ugly reflection on any country's culture; especially a country that declares it wants the best for its children and then hinders their learning.

I have heard many arguments for the closures from politicians and passers-by in the past weeks but none stands up to scrutiny. "Who needs libraries when you have the internet?" is the charlatan modernists' attitude. This misses the point. Books are an adventure.

There is a joy in going across a stacked shelf, flicking through the chapter headings and searching through the index in the hope that you will find the answer you need to whatever baffles you that day, whether it's something to do with the Napoleonic wars or how to make the perfect meringue. And what about people who don't have the internet at home - where do they go to get online? Why, the local library.

Then there's this argument: "Libraries are the preserve of the middle classes." I have (unscientifically) polled a few hundred people on this subject on Twitter. The replies came thick and fast from librarians and library users, aged between 16 and 78. True, the Downton Abbey screenwriter and authentic posh person Julian Fellowes has just appeared in a protest video for Somerset's libraries, but I had many responses from those in areas without herbaceous borders and farmers' markets; they, too, found their library a place of solace.

Among them was someone who mentored an Iraqi refugee at the local library. Another had been homeless; he used to spend days in the library, working out how to get out of that predicament. Those who had been "outsiders" at school told me about the libraries they used as refuges from aggression. Many said that they always joined the library when they arrived in a new town because it is the perfect place to get a sense of the community.

The revolution may not be televised but, at the very least, it will have a poster confirming its date on the library noticeboard.

Use it or lose it

Some claim that youngsters don't use libraries any more but that's just wrong: they are packed with under-tens. For many, the first experience of the wonder of reading is browsing through the boxes of books or being enraptured by readings of the Charlie and Lola stories or Roald Dahl. The trip to the library can be a weekly highlight. They might stop being regular visitors when the hormones kick in and they become more interested in the mating rituals around the benches outside but they'll be back.

The final argument deployed against library closures is this: "Aren't there more important things to worry about?" Fine. In the struggle for existence, libraries may seem a low priority. But they are a sign that a society believes the life of the mind is important. If some are underused, the solution is not to shut them but to get people back inside them and remind them of why libraries are there.

You might not belong to your library now, but, one day, when you walk by a building site promising luxury apartments, where kids on tricycles once excitedly wheeled back with their new favourite book on dinosaurs, you will be sorry that it is gone.

Get out your library card and start borrowing again. If the Prime Minister really is a fan of the Smiths, then he knows this - there's more to life than books but not much more.

Robin Ince will be touring his"Bad Book Club" from March. More details at: robinince.com

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency