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“Too precious to destroy” – Philip Pullman stands up for public libraries

Philip Pullman

Last week more than 300 people squeezed into a meeting at Oxford’s town hall to oppose the County Council’s plan to shut 20 of the county’s 43 public libraries, writes Stuart White.

The author, Philip Pullman, spoke to the meeting. Along with openDemocracy, False Economy is making Philip’s inspirational speech available in full.

Oxfordshire’s County Council has invoked the “Big Society” to suggest that communities bid for sums to run libraries – and a range of other services – on a volunteer basis.

Aside from denigrating the professionalism of librarians, Philip wonders where the volunteers will come from.

“The fact is that if there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are already working for one....This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers.”

And will richer and poorer communities be equal in the race for funds? Of course not. The cuts to public libraries reflect the growing power of the “greedy ghost of market fundamentalism”:

“The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands... He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards?”

Market fundamentalism, Philip adds, is a kind of fanaticism:

“The theory says that they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences... never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane.”

For the institution of the local public library is an essential part of what makes our society “decent and humane”.

Philip recalls the excitement of the day in 1957 when his mother took him to get his first library ticket.

“Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens in the republic of learning. Only the public library can give them that gift.”

This is why public libraries are “too precious to destroy”.

This is why we must say no to the greedy ghost who threatens to “kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life”.

Read Philip Pullman's full speech »

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