I went to London yesterday to a rally in support of public libraries. We met at the Central Hall, Westminster and there was a pretty healthy turnout - hundreds of people listened to speeches on a week day when many of the professionals concerned are at work and in some cases fearful of standing out in a time of job cuts. It was good to see publishers like Mills and Boons and Hot Key Books in attendance.
Children's authors were well represented. Alan Gibbons is a children's author and tireless campaigner for libraries and he chaired the event. Philip Ardagh spoke. Fiona Dunbar, Candy Gourlay, Lucy Coats, Mary Hooper, Gillian Cross were there (and I apologise if I have missed anyone). Lots of librarians too, obviously. The relationship between librarians and children's authors is a very obvious one - librarians often host events and they look after things like the Summer Reading Challenge and administer many of the awards in children's fiction - but everybody who is interested in books, in whatever form they are delivered, should be interested in a healthy library system.
Kate Mosse seemed to be the only writer of adult fiction there - and made a very good speech by the way. Why were there not as many writers of adult fiction as there were of children's fiction? And writers of non-fiction should surely be very concerned about the attack on libraries. A big name historian or two would have been good.
This is not just an issue for writers though. It is certainly not an issue about Public Lending Rights - whilst welcome and important, PLR is not the financial lure some politicians or journalists seem to think it is. Self interest does motivate me in my support of libraries. I want to grow old(er) in a civilised Britain and public libraries are part of a civilised country. A healthy society benefits everyone in it. Education is a key part of that. Culture is a key part of that. Hope is a key part of that. Public libraries were an optimistic invention. Every closure is an act of heart-breaking pessimism.
As I travelled home I thought to myself that all kinds of people from so many different walks of life and professions have relied on public libraries at some point in their career. They were crucial - absolutely crucial - to my development as a writer, but they were equally crucial to my development as an illustrator, as I would get books out of the library solely based on the illustrations. I would look through art books I could not afford for hours on end - and I know I am not the only one. Library closures should concern illustrators and painters and designers and film-makers. This is not just about the written word. This about pictures too. And music. And film and television.
Libraries are a vital public service, yes. Librarians - because we are speaking up for librarians as much as libraries - are vital too. A library without a librarian is a book depository. Libraries are a crucial part of the community - particularly for the old and for the young, for those on low incomes, for those in rural locations or areas of inner city deprivation. They provide classes and courses, information and access to the internet. But they are much more than. They are places to dream. They are launchpads for the imagination. They need to be nurtured, not closed or starved of funding. Books changed my life, and when I was a boy, that meant library books.
Bookshops have books too, of course. Amazon has books. But a library is different for the simple reason that in a library the books are provided to the reader free of charge. Only people with lots of money think that doesn't matter. It does matter.