Mar 282011

I came across a rather amazing interview with Will Self on the BBC Open Book radio program.  The subject was Self’s nominal opposition, along with a host of other well-known English writers, to the closing of public libraries in the UK for budgetary purposes.

Will Self at Humber Mouth 2007, by Maggie Hannan, on Flickr

Will Self at Humber Mouth 2007, by Maggie Hannan, on Flickr

Self is a well-known writer and television personality recognized, according to Wikipedia, “for his satirical, grotesque and fantastical novels and short stories.”  Among his great influences are listed William S. Burrows and Hunter S. Thompson.  All of this intersecting with commentary on the plight of the modern library is simply irresistible.

But anyone expecting a spirited defense of public libraries as we currently know them will be shocked by what he says.  While he has gone on record opposing the library closures, he seems to offer plenty of support for those on the other side.  This may be a put-on of some sort; he is a comedian and contrarian, after all.  Certainly the earnest interviewer, Mariella Frostrup, seems a bit boggled by his line of reasoning.

Most librarians, certainly most public librarians, find his comments enraging and dispiriting, especially coming as they do when public funding has cratered in the UK and looks to be headed in the same direction in the US.  It’s also possible that he is seriously ill-informed; he did later confess to one angry librarian that “perhaps I was referring to my own local libraries – not all of them.” But he does raise some cogent points about core issues: ebooks and the question of what role there should be for paper books; what current users expect; and the danger of relying on nostalgic ideas about libraries that may no longer apply.

In any event, I went to the bother to transcribe the interview.  I can’t vouch for 100 percent accuracy, but it captures the essence.

Transcript of Open Book, BBC Radio 4, 3/20/2011

Mariella Frostrup: Libraries: a subject that animates readers and writers like no other.  With hundreds of libraries across the country facing extinction and a veritable who’s who of British writing talent vocally opposing the closures from Phillip Pullman to Kate Moss to Joanna Trollop to Jacqueline Wilson, there’s no question that it’s a subject that arouses strong passions.  Yet, with books no longer a luxury item, and all of us increasingly umbilically attached to PCs ebooks and ipads we have to ask that the controversial question what exactly are libraries for.  Will self a novelist never short of an opinion is one of the names calling for a halt to the closures.  He joins me now.  Will welcome.  Will when did you last visit your local library and why?

Will Self: I haven’t been in for quite a while.  I occasionally go to photocopy stuff; I go in to accompany my 9-year old who does go in and borrow things, though mostly it has to be said talking books rather than actual written books.  The local library, to use it beyond photocopying, never.

Frostrup: You’ve lent your voice to a campaign for a library that as you say you rarely visit.  In the face of draconian cost cutting what’s your argument to local council that there are actually making a mistake?

Self:  Well, it’s not a good one because it doesn’t fit into the prevailing ethos of public services which is that they try to convert themselves into some kind of profit center.  In the case of libraries that means paying for things like internet and photocopying perhaps putting in a kind of coffee bar, introducing these kinds of revenue streams and also this idea of public services that they need to actually attract the public.  The truth of the matter is that the kind of library that I and the kinds of starry literary names mentioned want to preserve is the kind of library that existed about 30 or 40 years ago and not the contemporary library at all.

Frostrup:  So in which case, it does beg the question why you are supporting the campaign at all, doesn’t it?

Self: I’m supporting it out of some kind of nostalgia, I suppose.  There is a something a bit weird going on here.  All the names you mentioned at the beginning of this item are people who are extensively subsidized by the public purse through the public lending right.  They are some of the top borrowed people in the country and they make a considerable income out of libraries.  It’s no wonder they are campaigning to keep them open.

Frostrup:  You’re not saying that’s the only reason, are you?

Self:  I’m sure they’re all hopping up and down if they’re listening as I speak and are gripped by a frenzy of public spiritedness.  But the fact of the matter is the people you mentioned are earning thousands every year out of libraries.

Frostrup:  What about you?  Do you make money from being borrowed?

Self:  Oh yes, I make money out of PLR as well, but not that much.  But more germane it seems to me is that just as you asked me when I last went to my local library, you know, to actually use it, and the answer was “I never have,” so I wonder if my fellow objectors to library closures are really themselves library users themselves or rather, the argument seems to be, we used them when we were young and look at us now,  it’s a sort of argument from previous effects to current situations rather we actually are users at this moment and I think there’s something strange about that.

Frostrup: Let’s forget about the writers.  Thousands of people across the country say that they do use libraries and say they don’t want the libraries to be shut down.  Do you think they also are trying to preserve some five-decade old institution?

Self:  I certainly think that problem for libraries needs to be encountered head on, which as you mentioned is the internet. We have to try and grasp the extent to which electronic paper is going to replace physical paper, and whether this is something that libraries want to go with or whether it’s something they want to programmatically resist.  I certainly believe those people are sincere, I certainly believe that they use libraries, but I think people need to be absolutely clear about what it is they wish to preserve.

Frostrup: There are initiatives to bring U.S.-style public-private ownership to libraries where there will be radical overhauling: murder mystery nights and open mike sessions.  Do you think that sounds like a positive proposal?

Self: Well, the truth of the matter is that this is something that  libraries themselves could have been doing a lot more of.  I’m sure there will be a howl of anger from people in the library sector but when I have actually sat down and talked to librarians I have to say the impression I’ve often gained of them is that they are quite narrow in their thinking and there’s even a slight jobsworth mentality to them.  It’s one of those private sector jobs that people kind of get stuck in.  In my own career over the years the number of actual public events I’ve done at libraries is really pretty small and I’m not asked that often by libraries.  I mean, where are these libraries that have reached out beforehand to try and alter the model of the service they provide with the resources that are available?

Frostrup: You say that librarians can be a pretty [inaudible] lot but the role of the librarian used to be a pretty serious profession.  I mean Phillip Larkin was one, for heaven’s sake, and now it seems to be to domain of big society volunteers.  Who are these people who can afford to work for free and doesn’t that negate the role of the expert who says “oh you should really look at that shelf”?

Self: I don’t think the big society people are in their quite yet, Mariella.  I’m mean they are getting in there, there’s no doubt about that.  I certainly think the job of librarian is a serious occupation and should be undertaken seriously, but remember Larkin was a university librarian, he wasn’t a branch librarian.  What’s the reality of this? Those people you mentioned at the top of the program—all very fine effectively middlebrow writers who are all highly borrowed from branch libraries and that’s no doubt a good thing.  But they are exactly the kinds of writers who are most under threat in their paper incarnation from the internet and from ebooks.  So is that why we are keeping branch libraries open? The truth of the matter is that the resale value of those writer’s books is vanishingly small.  You can pick them up in a cardboard box outside your local charity shop for a few pence.  So maybe we need a different kind of model for how those kind of books can be accessed.  I just sat on the jury for the British Design Awards and we gave the award to a free library in Magdeburg where the residents had got together and created a free open building where books could be taken away and returned and there was no need for a librarian, I hate to say, and it was a way for people to access these paper books.

Frostrup:  You say that paper books are cheap, but books for children aren’t, and they arguably are the generation that writers are fighting for because those kids are the age they were when they used libraries and ultimately turned them into the writers they are…

Self:  That’s such a ridiculous argument, now isn’t it?

Frostrup: I know, but that’s what you tell me they are arguing.  So do you think there is a role for the inspiration for libraries that they perhaps had?

Self: Absolutely but we have to be honest about what we are doing.  We have to accept that it’s a massive loss-leader.  I can image the kind of library I’d like to see–and my local library is right down the road here a couple of hundred yards away–and I’d like it o have the kind of books I’d like to borrow and refer to and use.  But I really have no requirement to use it so I’d like it to sit there empty with a very brilliant Phillip Larkin style librarian sitting behind the counter and just waiting for me to come in and inspire me or my younger avatar to become a writer, but let’s be honest: it’s going cost quite a lot of money and people are going to oppose it.  Now the reason libraries have this iconic status in the careers of writers such as Pullman and myself who now in our 50s and 60s is that there were relatively less media around at that time there simply weren’t televisions and iPods and computers to tinker with.

Frostrup: So should this crisis be viewed as an opportunity to do things differently?  What should we be doing?

Self: I think my answer will just baffle.  I think the internet should be excluded from the library to make it solely a paper resource.  If you want to have a community internet room put it somewhere else.  If you still believe the solo contemplation of the paper book is an intrinsic educational good—and I do believe that—I think that ereaders and computers have quite a sinister effect on the way people learn and kind of agglomerate knowledge—then kick the internet out.


  One Response to “Support Based on Nostalgia: Will Self on Public Libraries”

  1. […] Will Self also claims that a good deal of the visceral support for public libraries is based on nostalgic memories rather than the value of current services. A clear-eyed view, according to him, would reveal that […]