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Why libraries must be cherished

All libraries – from the largest to the smallest – are repositories of magic and dreams, linked by the opportunities they represent, says CHARLIE CONNELLY. And we must cherish them

Twenty-five years ago this week the Bosnian cellist Vedran Smajlovic sat among the burnt-out ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and began to play.

On the night of August 25/26, 1992, Serbian forces besieging the city had aimed their artillery at the 1896 neo-Moorish building on the banks of the Miljacka river and let fly. The library was an easy target, taller than its neighbours in the old Turkish quarter and instantly recognisable with its decorated, pillared frontage on the bank of the river. Inside were 1.5 million books’ worth of kindling, many of them irreplaceable, many of them priceless.

As well as an easy target the building was a symbolic one. Sarajevo, a key location on trade routes between Europe and Asia, had always been a beacon of religious and ethnic tolerance and many of the manuscripts housed in the library recorded the city’s history of peaceful co-operation. Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslav: the Serbs hadn’t just destroyed a beautiful old building, they’d destroyed the records of a cultural and spiritual heritage.

Brittle black flakes drifted silently across the city for days afterwards, settling like a carbon snowfall, the charred remains of millions of pages destroyed in the conflagration swept up by the wind and blown across Sarajevo.

Smajlovic, in formal black tie and tails, was a well-known figure in the city, playing his cello on the sites of atrocities and at the funerals of their victims, the latter a particularly risky activity given the Serbs’ penchant for shelling groups of mourners gathered in the open ground of a cemetery.

When he placed his battered chair on the ash-thick floor of the ruined library, sat down and began to play there could be no more potent and poignant symbol of the cultural destruction that compounded the appalling physical onslaught and deprivation faced by a city in which around 10,000 citizens would die during the three-year siege.

It took 22 years but after rebuilding and restoration co-funded by the EU the library is finally back in business. Indeed it opened appropriately just in time for the anniversary of the start of the First World War – when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the city on June 28, 1914, triggering the process that led to war, he had just left a reception there.

The Vijecnica is a beautiful building, a monument to defiance as well as a repository of Bosnian history, culture and knowledge, and, appropriately, Smajlovic was among those invited to perform at a 2014 concert given to celebrate the building’s rejuvenation. ‘Vijecnica was wounded but its spirit never went away,’ he said. Few libraries are quite that heavy with symbolism but I’m lucky enough to have visited and carried out research in a number of Europe’s finest archives, from the ancient to the relatively new.

The Philological Library at the Free University of Berlin, for example, was opened in 2005, a stunning piece of architecture designed by Norman Foster to look from the outside like a human brain (it’s much better than it sounds). Inside it’s all sleek lines and white furnishings flooded with natural light, like a spring clean for the mind.

In Copenhagen the granite ‘Black Diamond’ extension to the Danish Royal Library opened in 1999 as the focus of a merging of repositories to create one Danish national library containing thousands of books and documents including Hans Christian Andersen’s original manuscripts and love letters by Soren Kierkegaard.

Prague boasts the beautiful baroque Czech national library at the Clementium, in use since the 1780s and whose painted ceilings seem designed to distract even the most dedicated researcher. Venice has the sixteenth century Biblioteca Marciana decorated by the likes of Tintoretto and Titian, while in the huge, domed reading room at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin it’s possible to sit at the same desk where a young James Joyce would conduct the meticulous research that went into his novels.

A stone’s throw away at Trinity College, meanwhile, visitors to the Book of Kells have the bonus of passing through the galleried, Hogwarts-esque Long Room of the university library, dating back to the early 18th century and containing 200,000 of the university’s oldest books, while in London’s British Library the reader needing inspiration can rise from his or her desk and stroll downstairs to peruse a breathtaking gallery of treasures, from a priceless Shakespeare first folio to Beatles lyric drafts in the scribbled hand of John Lennon.

Flagships though they are, it’s not just national libraries and leading university repositories that are important, however. According to official figures there are around 65,000 public libraries in the European Union, through which nearly 100 million people pass every year.

In Britain in 2015 17.6 million adults made use of the nation’s public libraries, representing a third of the adult population. Roughly 300 million books were checked out over the course of that year, while in Ireland there were 18.4 million book loans from the country’s public libraries in a country with a population of less than six million.

Impressive figures indeed and libraries are clearly an important part of life on both a national and local level, but the UK government doesn’t seem to agree. Libraries in Britain have been grievously afflicted by austerity. Last year alone 120 libraries closed their doors for the last time, while more than 500 would have closed if they were not now run by volunteers. Some 8,000 library workers have lost their jobs since 2009 as more than 300 libraries closed during the same period. A public library doesn’t have a bottom line. As a publicly-funded service that’s free to the user there’s no figure appending a balance sheet to appease the bean counters by showing any kind of tangible financial return, enough to have austerity-addicted policy ideologues throwing up their hands in horror.

In Bath, for example, the local authority is seeking to close the city’s outstanding central library, convert it to council offices and move library services into a ‘one-stop shop’ half the size, with protests by concerned citizens of Britain’s most genteel city.

Yet libraries unquestionably have a positive economic effect. In 2013, for example, a quarter of a million people across the European Union found jobs as a result of using public library services. That’s because the modern library is not just a building full of whiffy old fellas in cagoules poring over picture books of steam trains. It’s estimated that 4.6 million Europeans every year access the internet for the first time in their local public library, for example, while in the same period two million people regularly use their libraries because it’s the only place they can access the internet for free.

The library is almost unique in the way users can walk in off the street to spend as much time as they like using the facilities, whether it’s dodging in out of a shower of rain to leaf through an old Mills & Boon or settling in for a day’s research into one’s family tree, and none of it cost them a penny.

While the government might see this as wasteful philanthropy or what some politicians idiotically call the ‘something for nothing culture’, the economic, social and cultural benefits of libraries are practically incalculable.

As the flames of Sarajevo showed libraries are invaluable repositories of culture and knowledge, whether that be in terms of priceless illuminated Ottoman manuscripts at the gateway to Asia or a shelf of 19th century trade directories in a small market town in the Fens.

When I was a boy my sister and I had a Saturday morning ritual: our parents would walk us round to the local library, a small, single storey building of whitewashed, graffiti-spattered pebbledash with cages over the windows. In our hands were our library tickets, little cardboard sleeves furred with overuse, our names written on them in biro – passports to worlds magical, imaginary and real.

The children’s section was small, the paintwork was chipped and dirty, there were cracks in the plaster and the window frames were slowly rotting. In winter it was freezing, in summer it was like a sauna, but that didn’t matter because around the walls were low shelves packed with dog-eared hardbacks displaying their sun-faded spines. This is what made the room the most magical place in the world. Asterix, the Famous Five, Tintin, football adventure books: the contents of that room provided a priceless university for the imagination.

So magical was the library that when we’d drive past it at night I’d wonder whether, behind the window cages, Asterix, Tintin and the rest had snuck out from between their covers to run around, having adventures together in the dark.

What I owe Grove Park Library in south-east London and its shy, kindly librarian called John with his tweed jacket and milk bottle bottom glasses, who would stamp my books with a hint of a nod and smile approving my choices, is impossible to quantify. The thump-click of the date stamp every Saturday morning was the soundtrack to my real education, the one that taught me there was magic in the world, opportunities, stories, things to wonder at and dream of and a wealth of opportunities to make the world a better place.

Grove Park Library was due to close in 2011 but a group of local volunteers took it over and as far as I know it’s still going today. It’s a long way from Sarajevo to Grove Park – you’d probably have to change at Lewisham – but that battered little repository of magic and dreams in south-east London and the rebuilt, reopened neo-Ottoman building on the banks of the Miljacka river are linked forever by what they contain and the opportunities they represent.

The inevitable increased austerity that goes hand-in-hand with Brexit means libraries are more under threat than ever. We allow them to disappear at the collective peril of all our futures.

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