Your average macho man would, if he conformed to the stereotype, not have much to say in favour of milksop bookworms who spend their time dreamily composing poetry. The two images could not be farther apart, and yet they are in each other’s debt. For without poets we should have no Achilles, and no Aeneas; we should have a more sober notion of Henry V; and the Charge of Light Brigade would be merely a military disaster. How else are we to know the measure of a man, without some great insight from other men who understand greatness?
The juxtaposition has been made many times I am sure. Yet there is a missing element here, for poets need readers. If poets are not read, then no magnitude of eloquence will serve posterity. Original manuscripts of ancient texts were preserved by religious orders. Those texts were consulted by scholars who transcribed, translated, and published them, to be forever preserved in libraries. Of all the great strides of the nineteenth century, the opening of libraries – the democratisation of knowledge – is surely among the most important. Public bodies assumed the duty to maintain and preserve the store of human knowledge and to make it freely available to anybody who wished to pursue, or simply to peruse it. We, the readers, owe a great deal to those people who opened the doors to self-education.
Not so long ago, in a town or city like yours, a university administrative committee congratulated itself that it could finally get rid of hundreds of tonnes of volumes from the university library, thanks to newly available digital resources. The old tomes, which were formerly available for consultation by any member of the public, had been thrown into skips. Since the local library was also scheduled to close, the reading public was left with no recourse. The new digital version of the library was made available only to those fortunate people who could boast a university log-in name. Cost of said log-in is shortly to rise to £9,000 per year, since the only way to get one, other than by being employed by the university, is to be a student. Meanwhile the administrators basked in the empty space of the library. It was so much easier to breathe without all the books. And it was so much easier now to find a seat.
The self-appointed guardians of the internet have taken on no notion of liberal access to knowledge, and in this they are ably supported by governments looking to save pennies. By day, the internet is being made a pay-per-view medium, just as libraries are slated to shut down. The digitisation of the world’s libraries is a fantastic idea, but only if we can get at it. Giant scanning projects are not undertaken with a mind to making libraries more available; they are undertaken to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition per se, but if the result is the closure of real libraries that inhabit real space, because they no longer fit digital-age models of value, then we have taken a drastically wrong turn. Knowledge is being returned to the realm of those who can afford it, and the richness of existence that lines the shelves of countless public libraries is set to disappear (see the map below of UK library closures).
View Public Library Closures in the UK in a larger map
The books will not be burned, but for no better reason than that we are now environmentally friendly. The books will be pulped.