Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Library cost-cuts cultural vandalism

Libraries are more important than ever in a fast-changing world. Photo / Dean Purcell
Libraries are more important than ever in a fast-changing world. Photo / Dean Purcell

'You want weapons? We're in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room's the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!"

- Doctor Who.

I don't believe in much. I'm not religious, I don't think I learned anything at school, I hate sports, I am not a group-joiner, I don't like travelling, I don't share the national fervour for home ownership, DIY, rugby or competitive outdoor pursuits.

Cars, phones, computer games, vegan cheesecake, glittery Miu Miu sunglasses, can live without 'em. But there is one thing I truly am willing to fight for: public libraries.

"The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man," TS Eliot wrote.

Six months ago I filled in a survey about Auckland Libraries. It asked such pointed questions it sounded like it was a thinly-veiled attempt to justify closing libraries.

Alarmed, I emailed asking about the survey's objectives. I got a bedside-manner reply from Michael Winder at private consultancy Gravitas Research reassuring me it was not a cost-cutting exercise but a regular annual survey aimed to help understand what kind of improvements need to be made on library services.

Well six months later and fancy that! Who knew the "improvements" people wanted from libraries were to cut jobs and opening hours?

The council has just announced it is cutting more than 50 library jobs before Christmas, shutting 31 libraries between Christmas and New Year for the first time and making staff work at two or more libraries.

Excuse me while I find a soft spot to have a rage seizure.

Yes, I know in our increasingly online world you might think libraries are becoming redundant. But you would be wrong. Libraries are more important than ever. Here are a few reasons why.

1) Once I overheard Laura - see I know my local librarians by name - discussing an elderly patron who came in every Wednesday at the same time to get his weekly novel but this particular week he hadn't shown up. She was worried and wanted to ring to make sure he was all right. That's because libraries are about people, not just books. Don't confuse the future of books or publishing with the future of public libraries. When you close post offices, banks and clubs, libraries become our default meeting place and serve a vital role in social cohesion.

Who knew the "improvements" people wanted from libraries were to cut jobs and opening hours?

2) A year or so ago, members of the World Economic Forum said misinformation on the internet was one of their top 10 most pressing issues. Credible expert information is more important than ever. Libraries offer expert staff who can help sift through and find reliable data in a sea of misinformation. But making librarians work at two or more different libraries will undermine this expert role. I guess I won't be able to go in and ask the librarians for help by name anymore.

3) Libraries provide support for many of the most vulnerable in society, the housebound, the lonely - sometimes the smelly, but that's okay too. "I have had one gentleman tell me, over the counter, that he would quietly commit suicide if the library closed," one librarian confessed. Some of the most popular topic areas are books on health and wellbeing.

4) If the council needs to cut its budget, perhaps it could start trimming with some other areas of "wasted" spending, such as the $1.2 billion on IT which former mayoral candidate Vic Crone said was spent with "nothing to show for it". Or, perhaps, examine some of the costs of outside consultancies like the Shortland St-based research firm which carried out the library survey.

5) As our world becomes more frantic, faster, noisier, more virtual and more connected we need the slowness, quietness and space of a library more than ever. Great libraries, like all great buildings, change how you feel and this, in turn, changes how you think. "The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library," Albert Einstein said.

6) There is no "business class" in a library. Even for a dedicated capitalist it is civilised to have some places where no one is trying to sell you anything. As Caitlin Moran said on a cold rainy day, a library is the only sheltered public place where you are not a consumer but a citizen.

7) Libraries open doors to new worlds, new possibilities and give us new narratives. We don't need information to thrive but stories. Libraries are a temple to story. Doris Lessing said a public library is the most democratic thing in the world. "If you can read you can learn to think for yourself."

Libraries are not in decline because of some natural progression, but because of the cultural vandalism of cost-cutting.

We will pay a terrible price if we let this happen.

- NZ Herald

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