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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 27, Volume 9 Number 1, September - October 1982.

IN the last five years 470 branch libraries in England and Wales have been closed. Thirty-six mobile libraries have discontinued their services. Library opening times have been widely curtailed. 1286 library posts have been lost since 1976.

The National Book Committee has issued a report entitled 'Public Library Spending in England and Wales' which, with lists of statistics and a sober commentary, goes a long way towards explaining the decline in various areas of cultural life, locally and nationally. The report should be compulsory reading for those public authorities who have not succumbed to the sombre imbecility of blanket attitudes to public spending and to the cultural needs (as against abstract 'cultural aspirations') of the public.

Some of the most savage cuts have been made in areas of high unemployment, where the library service is particularly important. The motive for this trimming is a cynical one: cuts in library services are less visible than other forms of reduction, and though the savings are small in relation to the general budget, they are savings after all. Councillors who participate in this fiscal vandalism belong to that class of people that regards any but the most rudimentary literacy as suspect. They dislike the 'something for nothing' philosophy they believe to underlie the library service itself. 'They've always got television,' a local official was reported as saying. That 'they' spoke volumes: it was a managerial term, referring to the managed citizenry. The value system which perceives an equivalence between literary and television culture is, to be sure, a degraded one.

The destruction of branch libraries is a serious matter. More serious for the fabric of the library service is the reduction of book funds. They have been affected badly because, as the report says, 'book fund spending is more readily adjustable in the short term, against the fixed costs of other aspects of the service'. The decline is by 15% of the total budget but varies greatly from one authority to another. In Tower Hamlets the cuts have been by 70%, in Kent by 43%, in Durham by 41%, in Bradford by 55%, in Barnsley by 40-45%, in Dyfed by 62%, etc. Only eleven authorities out of 119 have sustained or increased their book funds. Funds for periodicals have been cut back even more severely.

The National Book Committee questions the actual legality of these developments in the light of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, especially Sections 1(1) and 7(1). They also point out the baleful consequences of the policy for publishers, the public at large and disadvantaged groups in particular. Libraries cannot maintain representative collections if they must effectively 'write off' books published in lean years. Publishers cannot project marginal titles if they cannot count upon a responsive library sector (though some publishers have much to answer for in their pricing policies). The decline in literary publishing during the last few years cannot be divorced from the decline in the library service. Five million fewer books were bought for libraries in 1980 than in 1979. The figures for 1981 may be even more depressing.

Commercial imperatives have increasingly become editorial imperatives: lists have grown not more rigorously selective or more geared to excellence, but more market-oriented. The health of British literary publishing has for many years-and increasingly-depended on the health of the home market and in particular the library service. Its decline is further evidence of the crude ascendancy of the market-place where notions of worth are supplanted by those of demand and the book is a perishable commodity with a shelf-life of eleven or twelve months.

It is in part the libraries which make it possible for us to speak of a 'readership' rather than a 'market' for literature. The distinction is not a quibble.

No doubt there is fat in the library service and some room for economies. But the cuts that have been effected are cruelly disproportionate and the damage they are doing is irreparable and extends well beyond those warm, strange-smelling buildings in our towns and cities where books live. The failure of imagination of local and national authorities in this case as in other areas of planning is indistinguishable from a failure of civic responsibility, a treachery to our institutions and our culture. There is little we can do. 'We' are the 'they' who, as a placebo, have television.

This issue of PN Review and the next, number 28, mark our tenth anniversary. PNR has grown from a twice-yearly hardcover anthology into a review which, with its limited resources, pursues several objectives: to present new work, information, description, evaluation and re-evaluation, and to attend to the wider context of our literary life. It is this last objective which is most elusive, largely because that 'wider context' is at once very real and Protean. How wide is the 'wider context', how contingent is it to the rare authentic literary enterprise? Is the pursuit of it at times a distraction from the actual challenge of new work? Is the 'wider context' not too various to be a subject for a literary -rather than a sociological or a polemical-journal?

In this issue we print a letter from Laura (Riding) Jackson, a contributor whose work and judgement I particularly value. She asks radical questions, some of which my fellow-editors have raised in other terms in the past. These questions reflect on the magazine's shortcomings and on the milieu in which it exists. One of the perils for a journal such as this one is that it may become merely descriptive, a kind of Lepidus balancing the claims of rival factions, indecisive and ineffective. It may contribute to the 'private' nature of contemporary literary production against which it was originally directed, and fall well short of its commitment to 'criteria of goodness' which are not themselves determined by the 'prevailing processes of literary production'. The relative lack of controversy which greeted some of our more challenging essay contributions tends to support Mrs Jackson's contentions. Her cautionary words about the siren of structuralism are timely and are not unconnected with the other points she raises.

Nor are her criticisms unconnected with the shrugging apathy which greeted editorial comments on the Ian Hamilton Finlay affair; or the relative unsuccess of PNR 13 to provoke serious reconsideration. When dialogue cannot even begin, 'the ditch is nearer', indeed, dug as much by writers as by bureaucracies.

This item is taken from PN Review 27, Volume 9 Number 1, September - October 1982.

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