Public libraries are under threat. What impact will this have on creativity?
In an extract from All the Libraries in London – a 10-year project and book from Simon Elvins, head of art and design at Wonderhood Studios, and artist Ruth Beale – writer and researcher Lola Olufemi highlights the importance of the local library and calls for urgent action to cherish these spaces.
It’s true that libraries make writers and readers; that they house, protect, and defend language. The library is that place where language sits, ready to be picked, poked, and prodded. Most writers affirm the central importance of the library in their childhood and wax lyrical about the private, transformational experiences with books that constituted their desire to write. The library, in our shared public imagination, is a special place. It is understood as the steward of an assortment of wonders, a place to explore curiosities, a place to get lost, to forget about the violence of social life. A beacon of stillness. We know the story of the famous writer’s relationship to the library but not the central role that libraries play in areas hardest hit by state neglect, organised abandonment, and decades of austerity.
“In the library you begin to be convinced that language matters, that words have the power to clarify, to rouse, to make us feel something, to help us understand the political and cultural features of historical and contemporary moments.”Lola Olufemi
For many working-class children, the function of a library is less romantic. If you are a poor child, your local library is one of first public spaces that you are allowed to linger for free without being hurried along, portrayed as a public nuisance, or instructed to be seen and not heard. In the library you can ask questions that would not be permitted in the outside world, in the library you can enquire, take items home for free and you are trusted to return those items by your community. This is one of the first genuinely relational experiences you have with an institution. In the library, more seems possible – your intellectual capacity seems to grow and grow just by virtue of being around others who are nurturing theirs. You leave the library knowing more than you did when you entered. In the library you begin to be convinced that language matters, that words have the power to clarify, to rouse, to make us feel something, to help us understand the political and cultural features of historical and contemporary moments. When you grow older you realise that publicly owned libraries are a demonstration of a collective endeavour where the profit-motive is not central to the maintenance of a service. The library is a public good. You come to understand it as one of the few places where the logic of capital does not intrude. You marvel that the library is still capable of existing in such dire conditions.
1 of 7
Ruth Beale and Simon Elvins: All The Libraries in London (Copyright © Ruth Beale and Simon Elvins, 2023)
“The library, in our shared public imagination, is a special place.”Lola Olufemi
All the Libraries in London: Reader is the product of an artistic collaboration; it lists every library currently publicly accessible in London, but it is more than just an index. This is a political and artistic listing, one that invites the reader to rediscover their own memories of their local library as a site of discovery. The book's authors invite us to reflect on our personal relationship to libraries as well as the necessity of collectively securing their future existence.
“The library is important not because it offers a route out of poverty for the most 'deprived' but because it houses the kind of books that help them critically assess their position in a violent world.”Lola Olufemi
My local library always felt slightly empty. Ironically – it didn’t have as many books as you’d expect and as a child I always wondered why. Before understanding the political nature of the conditions I lived in; how my postcode, my position in a class structure, my body and the effects of austerity shaped by access to resource, I still thought of my local library as my own desire pathway (poet Robert Mcfarlane describes the concept of a desire pathway as “paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning” ). I was determined to occupy my local library and utilise it in a way that ran contrary to the state’s design (the forcible closure of libraries due to purposeful underfunding). Libraries are one of the well-worn paths and tracks that are shaped by the wishes of the people. Even as they crumble and remain on the brink of closure, we can maintain our own desire pathways by defending them, by ensuring that our children, our siblings, everyone that comes under our care and protection, benefits from this public good. The library is important not because it offers a route out of poverty for the most “deprived” but because it houses the kind of books that help them critically assess their position in a violent world. Libraries make the kinds of writers and readers whose work will never be permitted into the mainstream by virtue of their class, race and gender, whose work poses a real threat to the governing order. This alone makes them worth defending by any means necessary.
Susan Morris: The Penguin (or Pelican) Freud Library at Westminster Reference Library (Copyright © Susan Morris)
About the Author
Lola Olufemi is a Black feminist writer, organiser and researcher from London. Her work focuses on the uses of the feminist imagination and its relationship with futurity. She is author of Experiments in Imagining Otherwise and Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power, and is volunteer co-ordinator at the Feminist Library.