Across the UK, library services are being cut, because of the government's austerity programme which has drastically reduced funding to local councils. Catholic writer Esther Waldron spoke at a consultation in Golders Green Library, north London today, to discuss three proposed options for the future of Barnet Council's library service - all of which will mean severe cuts.
Esther gave the following statement which was received with applause.
A Defence of Barnet Libraries
One of the books I’m borrowing from Golders Green Library is ‘A Century of Wisdom - Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer’.
Alice’s surname means ‘Heart of Summer’. Alice spent two years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. She survived because of the beauty of her piano playing; she was a concert pianist who played in concerts in the concentration camp.
In the book, Alice quotes Heinrich Heine who foresaw the evils of Nazi Germany. Heine said of the early days of Nazism: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people."
To translate this to the modern day: if Barnet Council decimates its library service and severs access to books, it will, in the end, also decimate the spirit of its people.
And not just any people, but its weakest members – by which I mean the most vulnerable; as Gandhi once said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
In average, in Barnet, 44 per cent of school children don’t speak English as a first language at home. And 18 per cent of the borough’s population are aged 60 and over. Reducing staffing levels in our libraries by 40 or 50 per cent will make it 40 or 50 per cent more difficult and intimidating for these people to navigate our libraries.
I’ve listened as staff of Golders Green library have patiently explained to elderly people how to create an email account, how to surf the internet. The time and care these librarians take with the people of our community is an example to us all.
In literary terms, the three options that Barnet Council is proposing for its future library service are ‘Hobsons Choice’.
I love and choose to live in Golders Green is for its religious diversity and tolerance. Directly opposite the library is a Greek cathedral. Nearby is a Buddhist community centre. The area is, of course, well known for its vibrant Jewish community. This is also a Christian parish - my Catholic church is five minutes’ walk away on Finchley Road.
Barnet Council would not restrict access to our places of worship – at least I hope it would not. The same principle applies to libraries.
When I was a child every book was like the Bible to me. Every book felt holy. I still feel that books are holy, and that libraries are sacred spaces. Libraries are cathedrals of the human imagination. When I walk into my local library, my spirit soars at the achievement of the writers around me, and my soul sings at the possibilities inside the pages of the books.
With its current options Barnet Council will restrict access to books, but also the ideas in them - the hopes and dreams of authors’ hearts that speak to the human spirit, and what it means to be human and alive. To sever libraries is to sever access to what the books inside them represent: the creative imagination, which the poet William Blake said was God. He called it ‘Jesus Christ the Imagination.’
In closing: the words ‘council’ and ‘councillors’ have their origins in Latin words meaning ‘a group of people meeting together;’ and also the verb ‘to call’
Councils are literally called to bring people together.
Barnet Council, please use your powers to preserve our libraries because they are worth far more than any budget gap of £ 72 million.
Barnet libraries, like the people who live in the borough, including its most vulnerable members, are valuable beyond measure.