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Of Libraries and Common Ground

Friday January 25, 2013

As writers and readers fight against the closure of 10 branch libraries in neighbouring Newcastle, I have been thinking about the point of public libraries.   


The argument runs that technological developments have made local libraries redundant.     The internet has given us the greatest library the world has ever known, and now, with our smart phones, we can carry it in our pockets.


This argument assumes that a library is defined purely as a repository of knowledge: a source from which the self-sufficient individual can retrieve what they want.


The thing about local libraries to my mind is that they are the last remaining communal spaces that assume and offer a public good that does not require money or status to access.


Our new technologies are driving us to become a conglomeration of isolated individuals.  Our screens protect us from mixing with our fellow citizens in the communities where we live.   Through our smart-phones and tablets we can roam across the world to chose where we want to look.   It is a wondrous freedom, but we communicate less and less face to face, looking the stranger in the eye as a fellow human being.   


The internet, with its digital encounters in a lightless, anonymous world, breeds outrageous opinions.   Ordinary human beings, via their keyboards, can gain the mythical status of trolls.    We are beginning to exist, in our cosseted electronic world, in a place where the expression of alternative opinions can seem only confrontational and possibly dangerous rather than thought-provoking.


The physical library provides a congenial public gathering space where arts and literature invite us to find common ground; it introduces us to new voices, new tastes, new people, in a context of civility.   


For me – old fashioned as I am - libraries stand as symbols of a society that values education and arts as a common good – a common ground for the benefit of everyone.   And the closing of libraries represents a democratic retreat, the symbol of a current despair: a loss of faith that the democratically elected representatives of “we, the community” - of “we, the people” - can sustain any other priority than that dictated by commercial profit and the wealth of the few.


Read more about the fight to save Newcastle’s Libraries @

Campaign to save Newcastle Libraries

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