One of the most harrowing pieces of television I have ever seen is The Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith emerges from a bank vault to find the world has been destroyed by an atomic bomb and everyone is dead. About to kill himself, he notices the public library is still standing, then discovers the books are intact, which gives him something to live for. But in a final vicious twist, he drops his spectacles and the lenses crack. I cried so hard when I first saw this that my boyfriend wrote an extra scene to placate me (there’s an unlocked optician’s next door! The glasses are all fine! There are several spare pairs of every prescription!).
Because libraries are not just places where books live, they’re a lifeline for us all, from revising students and CV-polishing job-hunters to people who simply want to borrow a book. Which is why the news that 8000 jobs – a quarter of the overall total – have been lost from UK libraries over the past five years makes such chastening reading. 343 libraries have closed (many more have been transferred to community groups) and 111 are marked for closure in the next year.
Some libraries have adapted to change brilliantly: Stradbroke Library in Suffolk won an award earlier this month, for its clever combination of library and post office (the post office revenues have boosted the library’s income and library visits have shot up from 1000 per month in 2013/4 to 2700 per month now). A village that might easily have ended up with neither library nor post office has managed to retain both.
Meanwhile, the number of volunteers working in libraries has doubled to over 31,000. These volunteers have undoubtedly kept mobile and permanent libraries open which otherwise would be long gone. But libraries run by volunteers rely on there being a steady supply of those volunteers. Access to books and the internet surely shouldn’t depend on the quantity of free time and civic-mindedness in the neighbourhood where you happen to live.
Jorge Luis Borges once imagined the universe in the form of a library, where every combination of 22 letters and three punctuation marks existed in countless books. Most were unreadable, of course, but somewhere in the midst was, perhaps, the index which explained the library, and the universe itself. You know who could help you find such a precious book? A librarian.
Last summer, I wrote about the horrific murder of Khaled al-Asaad, the 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist and head of antiquities at Palmyra. He died as he had lived: trying to protect those antiquities. It is virtually impossible to cheer anything which happens in Syria, where any military gain comes with a crushing human cost, and it would take a stronger stomach than mine to cheer on the Syrian regime. Nonetheless, I am delighted to see the ancient ruins of Palmyra, recaptured from Islamic State, are less badly damaged than many had feared.
Syria’s antiquities chief has said that a team of archaeologists will reach Palmyra in days, allowing them to assess the damage wrought upon the ancient site. They have promised to rebuild the destroyed temples, and the triumphal Arch. Obliterating a country’s historical monuments is an attempt to delete its collective memory of itself. Regaining Palmyra and rebuilding it is an important step for everyone, not just archaeologists.
Storm Katie might well have kept you indoors over the weekend, but for more and more children, that’s nothing unusual. According to a recent survey, three-quarters of British children now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, which is a pretty chastening statistic. A fifth of children spend no time at all playing outside in the average day.
Of course playing outside is a lot more pleasant if you live near a park or a beach than if you live next to a main road. But even busy roads can lead to a park or square or somewhere green. According to another study from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, children from poorer backgrounds were less interested in nature than their wealthier peers. But the difference was overcome after spending one day outside. So why not go for a walk? Katie’s gone now.