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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Keeping cool is a hot potato for our policy-makers

The trouble with libraries is they’re not cool. You can’t annoy people on trains with them, show off in the street with them and you can’t use them to send offensive messages with smiley-face graphics.

Libraries are like buses. They do now what they’ve always done – or would do, if councils didn’t keep shutting them down.

Libraries, like buses, are being starved out of existence... because they’re not cool.

They’d be more cool if they were called iLibraries and iBuses.

That’s what you do to make something cool and ultra-desirable – stick an i in front of its name, make it cost a lot, be sure it’s unessential, obsolete in three weeks and suddenly everybody wants it.

Not only that, everybody and anybody will pay the earth for it.

Even people taking to the streets in their thousands and tens of thousands, protesting about student tuition fees and spending cuts hurling them onto the breadline, organise their fury via iPad.

You’re never too poor for a £600 iPad or a £500 iPhone. You’re never too hard up to be cool. But no-one can afford a library or a bus to the shops.

An old school friend met her husband-to-be in a public library. That was centuries ago, of course, in the days when it was cool to meet face to face for slow-burn romances.

Online dating agencies – via iPad – are now the cool way to fall in love. Libraries are passion killers – or would be if you could find one still open.

Anyway, my friend and her intended locked love-struck eyes across A-level study books and carried on a silent (there was no talking in libraries in those days), distant but steamy love affair for weeks, before he caught up with her at the bus stop and asked her out for a coffee.

See? Libraries were sexy back then. As were buses – especially the top decks of buses. You were so cool if you travelled upstairs on the bus, your library books under your arm, your mini-skirt skimming your bottom.

The look oozed beauty, brains and out and about. These days the look oozes indoors, online and obese.

How we allowed electronics to hijack our finer feelings, eat up all our money and ruin our fun, all in the name of cool, I’ll never know.

Officers at Cumbria County Council want to close 20 public libraries and move them into village shops, post offices and pubs – which are closing even faster than libraries because they’re not seen as being too cool either.

It’s not to save money, they say. Library closures and reduction in book stocks are for – er, I’m not sure they explained that fully but for reasons of coolness, is my guess.

Council officers who are not at all keen on libraries are clearly cooler than those of us who are. They must by iOfficers.

I’ll bet they have Kindle instead of shelves and boxes full of paperbacks. Bet they download sci-fi onto their tablets to appear wise and savvy – but only to each other.

Libraries aren’t solely about books, of course. They’re about CDs and DVDs, games and learning aids, classics and bestsellers, newspaper and film archives, reference and entertainment, a world of knowledge in print and audio.

But principally they are about people. People with a curiosity about life and the world around them. People who want to learn or escape into literary fantasy, people who like to meet. People who fall in love.

To hack away at anything which is principally about people always seems especially harsh and counter-productive to me.

Dusting and straightening the books on my groaning shelves at home the other day, I rediscovered my grandma’s Baptism Bible, presented to her by her church on the occasion of her christening in January 1901. She was born December 1900.

Between its tissue-thin pages were old, pressed, wild flowers she’d collected as a girl. No scent in them now, of course but a blush of colour in their blooms and a fragility that could move to tears.

Try capturing any of that on Kindle. Not much by way of treasured family memories and century-old flowers on an electronic tablet.

Only books hold those special secrets. And a love of books starts with a love of libraries.

Replacing the precious volume on its shelf, it occurred how King James – had he been around today – might have realised he’d missed a trick. Had he called it an iBible, he’d have had a bestseller, in a library, hidden in a pub.

Oh that’s right, he did have a bestseller... cool.

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