Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value.

Phillip Pullman’s inspirational speech on why libraries should be protected.

Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Perhaps Pullman should pop into one of his local charity shops, where he might also find copies of his books. I’m not saying charity shop volunteers would make good librarians, but it does his argument no good to maintain that volunteers are mythical creatures when there are plenty on every high street in the UK.

  2. I think you’re somewhat missing the point, Ian.

  3. Wow, what an awesome speech. Pullman’s remarks about ‘bidding culture’ are spot on. Having worked in the community sector here in Australia, I’ve found limited (and decreasing) funding pools force you to fight against your friends and allies, other organisations with vital and valid aims. Which, of course, works in the government’s favour- by keeping community orgs at war with one another, the ability to organise collectively becomes strained and limited.

    Expanding a little on Pullman’s remarks about how much the library meant to him- I couldn’t agree more. I grew up in a lower working class family, badly in debt, for whom books were a luxury and internet access an impossibility. We lived in a small, deeply homophobic rural city. As a queer teenager- unable to come out for personal safety reasons- the library was my lifeline, my only way to ‘connect’ with my community. I read every single book featuring queer people- novels, biographies, histories. Often these were outdated, flawed, homophobic. Generally they focused on financially privileged gay/bi men (whose experiences don’t entirely map onto those of a working class bi girl). Even so, they gave me enough support and indignation to make it through the times when I wanted to give up. Hey, if Oscar Wilde could kick against the pricks then I could too, right? So while libraries are important in a general sense, I think they can be even more so for those of us who are- in varied and overlapping ways- financially and socially marginalised. For those of us who won’t be (or are rarely) found in school libraries and textbooks. While my experience is by no means universal, I can honestly say that my local library service helped keep me alive through one of the worst periods in my life (and Oscar Wilde taught me everything I now know about being a snappy dresser).

  4. Hi Jax – thanks for sharing your background with libraries, and I think you’re highlighting something often over-looked with libraries: that they’re more than just a selection of books. They’re a way of supporting various (often vulnerable) section of society – as well as ensuring they’re sharp dressers too. 🙂

  5. Sod it, let’s staff the hospitals with volunteers too. Might as well do the same with the police and the fire brigade too.

    This represents a new nadir for Britain: public libraries are no longer considered an essential public service and a right. These people in power would probably continue this line of thinking to public education too, given half the chance.

    The true meaning of this nebulous concept of ‘Big Society’ is becoming more and more clear: society is expected to provide its own services, on a makeshift basis, rather than receiving its rightful and proper due from government. You chappies down there in the cheap seats can just jolly well get on with it and make do. Ugh.