ISSUE 1720 Wednesday 9 February 2000
UK Public Libraries
Let’s act now before libraries stamp out the last of our books, says Norman Lebrecht
THERE have been two periods in my life when I had intensive recourse to public libraries. In my early teens, there was no better place to meet a girl than behind the medical stacks of a high-street library. In my early twenties, there was no better place to acquire learning than in one of those grand Victorian mausolea that dignify the London Borough of Westminster.
Bypassing the common loan stock, I would make for the card files and thumb my way through the 780s of John Dewey’s foolproof system, pausing at old cards inscribed in a spidery, half-faded hand before asking a librarian to retrieve some long-defunct title from the vaults. Those were the days when librarians still loved books, and would carefully dust and sometimes discuss the obscure work before stamping it out.
The first sign that the library world was changing came when a routine request for retrieval was met with blank refusal: “Our union agreement does not cover fetching books from downstairs.” The next step was a notice that appeared on the board announcing that the reserve stock had been dispersed, or moved to Merthyr Tydfil.
Leathered tomes began to appear and disappear at library sales, 50p for Mendelssohn’s Letters (1864) or the first English biography of Mozart (1845). I bought all I could carry, heedlessly assisting in the depletion of public knowledge, like the Victorian looters of Pharaonic tombs.
Delving deeper, I moved on to the Central Music Library, tucked away behind Victoria Station, where the joy of autodidactism would be suffused with the sudden delight of finding the affixed bookplate of an Edwin Evans or Richard Capell, critical forbears who left their personal libraries for the greater public benefit. Many of their books, too, have since been tossed on to a sale trolley to make way for videos and computer games. A young man coming late to music, as I did, would now have little chance to handle a publicly owned Mahler first edition or first-hand memoir.
Nor are such items readily obtained from specialist booksellers, whose ranks and stocks are thinning month by month. Ten years ago one could plunder a dealer’s house in Bath and acquire for less than £200 the makings of a musical reference library – the staple biographies, period studies, dictionaries and analyses that furnish a musical mind and obviate the need for running to libraries in search of volumes they no longer possess.
But even that private option has narrowed as music booksellers go to the wall. Three long-serving firms – May & May, William Reeves and Tamarisk Books – have closed in the past six months. The survivors shun the bread-and-butter bibliography and confine themselves to rare and early editions. Like cod in the North Sea, the essentials of musical intelligence have become dangerously scarce.
So when Manchester City Council proposes, in the interests of cost-efficiency, to dismember the Henry Watson Music Library, it is merely joining a tide of vandalism that has swept most of the country clean of musical texts and scores. Glasgow, Liverpool and most London boroughs have lost their music libraries. The BBC has wantonly trashed thousands of scores. British library managers are burning more books than any group since Hitler’s stormtroopers.
Manchester will make its decision next Tuesday, and all who care for culture and education should make their views known in those parts with no little vehemence. Both sentiment and common sense demand the retention of the Henry Watson, which educated dozens of world-famous musicians and supplies parts to whatever remains of the brass bands and choral tradition of northern England. Among the collections under threat is a 24,000-strong library of light-orchestral music, perhaps the largest in the land.
Even if the Henry Watson is reprieved, its long-term future remains uncertain. Music is not alone in losing its specialist libraries: other arts and even sciences are apparently suffering in much the same way. Go find it on the internet, say the new-breed library managers. Little do they know how little one can learn without being physically surrounded by a critical mass of text-based knowledge.
This is not a Manchester issue, nor exclusively a British one, but one of the major dangers to modern civilisation. Libraries fall within the purview of the evasive Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, who employs half-a-dozen political advisers to alert him to upcoming banana skins. One of them should be given six months’ leave to design a survival plan for specialist libraries, before the vandals in charge stamp out the very last of our books.
24 September 1997: [UK News] Declining libraries told to turn over a new leaf