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This item is taken from PN Review 54, Volume 13 Number 4, March - April 1987.


'They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.'

IN 1982 I devoted the editorial of our tenth anniversary issue to the library service. 'In the last five years 470 branch libraries in England and Wales have been closed. 36 libraries have discontinued their services. Library open times have been widely curtailed. 1296 library posts have been lost since 1976.'

The picture remains bleak, with no prospect of change. Public Library Spending in the United Kingdom is available free (send a stamped addressed A4 envelope to Publications Office, Book Trust, Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ). Baroness David, Chair of the National Book Committee, urges the Minister (predessors have done so, too) to 'address himself to his statutory obligation to "superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service" rather than stand aside as its once great resources are allowed to dwindle.'

Book purchases in public libraries in England and Wales have fallen by 34.2% in real terms since 1978/9. In Scotland the fall has been 26.3% and in Northern Ireland 74.1%. Annual book additions have declined by 1.3 million since 1978. Annual book issues have fallen by 9 million. Some local authorities have cut over half their book fund. Only seven authorities in the whole country have managed a real increase in the book fund. The report details suspended subscriptions, withdrawal of reference books, abandonment of whole subject-areas, selection on the basis of price criteria, and other irreparable distortions in the library provision.

The University of London Library warns that cuts imposed on the university could lead to a reduction in services and collections 'to the point at which they can no longer meet the needs of teaching and research'. The University of London Library has one of the most complete collections of contemporary literature in the country. Its predicament among the great university and research libraries is not unique. On the contrary, its report is typical.

School spending on books is down by 22% since 1968. A comprehensive school headmaster speaks of the 'fiscal impossibility' of each student having his or her own textbook. Additionally, there is the fiscal and administrative impossisibility of photocopying sufficient material for course work. Textbooks are themselves often ill-produced and do not survive more than a couple of years' use.

Richard Hoggart, as outside reviewer, and four members of the British Council Staff have prepared Activity Review No 5: The British Council and the Arts. Dr Hoggart argues: 'We believe that all Council libraries should have, as part of their inalienable base stock, a good selection of the best of English literature from the beginning, even if some of the books are rarely taken out. Such books should have absolute precedence for shelf-space over, let us say, the latest Jeffrey Archer or Dick Francis or even P. D. James.' This point was made in response to the Council's 'weeding out' of classics from the shelves of its 100-odd libraries world-wide. The review recommends that the Council ask a group of experts to draw up a core list of literary and art books which every Council library should have.

Dr Hoggart's report is susceptible to broader application - to the public and school library services, for instance. It has that wholesome, rare scent of the late 1950s and early 1960s, of Joan Littlewood and Jenny Lee, of a vision of culture as a resource open to all, and a continuum which cannot be violated. The words used are stirring and precise: inalienable, best, absolute precedence. . . The enemies of such a vision are, on the one hand, the powers that be, and on the other the New Orthodoxy, rooted in critical argument rather than literature. Twenty years ago 'weeding out' would have been unthinkable. Hoggart would not have had to make a case.

In the United States just now a debate between conservative and liberal elements appears to be smouldering in various journals, and most recently in Salmagundi. Conservative educationalists advocate a core curriculum, a basic list of books that should be required reading for anyone being educated in the humanities. Their liberal opponents see the imposition of such a curriculum as authoritarian, ideologically motivated and restrictive. In Britain it is the increasingly noble and clear-sighted residue of the old left, unseduced by critical radicals who take their names in vain and undeterred by a Government appearently hostile to the humanities, who insist upon continuities, upon an open and accessible English tradition in all its fulness as a necessary resource.

A library which, for financial reasons, misses a year of its PNR subscription, is unfortunate; but a library which, to make space, or to make noise, or to make room for a librarian's aberrant ideology, chucks out Chaucer and Spenser because they haven't been borrowed enough, is betraying a statutory obligation. He impoverishes his library and community. 'In Council activities,' Dr Hoggart's report declares, 'perceived and appreciated merit, on uncompromising quality grounds, supersedes all else.' The same should apply in school, public and research libraries. Against such declarations, teachers with a narrow sense of 'relevance', post-structuralist critics hostile to the curriculum and technocrats hostile to the humanities sound feeble and rootless - sound jealous and small-minded. As the Library Service, the British Council in its ramifications, and other cultural institutions are stifled in utilitarian rhetoric, the voice of Richard Hoggart sounds especially compelling. Will its effect spill over into our native cultural environment? Or is he another Cuchulain? Are we 'Convicted cowards all'?

This item is taken from PN Review 54, Volume 13 Number 4, March - April 1987.

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