The Importance of Libraries


Article I wrote in support of local libraries.

The Importance of Libraries

Often, we place value on a building by what it holds and the services that it provides to a community. Banks hold money. Supermarkets sell food. Hospitals provide care for our physical well being. Libraries hold books. Yes, books.

We all know the value of banks, supermarkets, health centres and hospitals in our daily lives, but it is easy to forget just how important our local libraries are. For libraries hold books, and the vast collection of books that have ever been written and will be written hold within the DNA of civilisation. That might sound like the grossest hyperbole, but when one quietly reflects on it one must see that Western Civilisation and its culture is driven and sustained by the human word. Books are the step-by-step endeavour of the human species, and we can only build-up upon the foundations of previous generations because they have laid down their knowledge for posterity.

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.” So wrote Sir Isaac Newton when considering his work in relation to the achievements of his contemporary Robert Hooke. That the quote was most likely an underhanded dig at Hooke’s modest height should in no way distract from the sentiment:

Books give us the wisdom of the ancients, whose works still resonate with us as a part of the human experience.

Perhaps that is why the Irish monks laboured, so long ago, to record the marks of classical civilisation as the Dark Ages threatened to eradicate this knowledge from history.  Books record our achievements, our deepest held beliefs and convictions, our scientific theories and rules of law. Novels also shine a light upon the human drama of which we all a part.

The British Library alone holds over 170,000,000 items and, in fact, the principal of legal deposit entitles it to receive a free copy of every item published or distributed in Britain. That’s how important books are in the UK. Bearing that in mind, is it asking too much for our politicians to come up with a sensible plan to save our libraries?

For instance, who could not be impressed by the example of William Kamkwamba. This Malawian teenager used his local library to find the knowledge he needed to build windmills that supply electricity and pump water to his local village, Lilongwe. His achievements are all the more impressive when you consider that he taught himself English and built his first windmill with junkyard bits and pieces. The GPD of Malawi is approximately 3.705 billion USD, comparing to 2.678 trillion USD in the UK, but I’m pretty sure they’re not closing libraries in Malawi. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

So, the next time you pass your local library, why don’t you venture in for a while. You’ll find in there an abundance of books and much more besides. Just take in the stillness of the space. Or you can brush your fingers across the spines,  and then ease one book from its home to bring it closer still. Breathe in its smell and leaf through its pages. Enjoy the experience of holding the book, for the next time you pass your local library it may have shut down. And if someone casually mentions that libraries are not relevant or important, remember to arch an eyebrow and then give a quick snort of incredulity. For libraries are important because they hold books.

D S Allen

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