Author Jeanette Winterson has called for societies to value libraries, and said that the unpaid back tax from Google, Amazon and Starbucks would pay the annual cost of the service twice over.
Delivering the inaugural Reading Agency Lecture at the British Library yesterday evening (19th November) to mark the charity's 10th anniversary, Winterson also argued that libraries should be taken out of local council leisure budgets and put into the national education budget.
"Do you believe there is such a thing as the life of the mind—deep thought, concentration, reflection, real imagination—the expansion of the human spirit? Learning that is more than information? Creativity?" she asked. "If you do, then for whom? For the middle classes? For the right kids at the right schools? If you do, then when—when we are rich, powerful, wealthy? Or as a priority whatever we are? Don't hand kids over to computer
games and wall-to-wall TV—bring them to books early and see what happens. Give them a library as good as anything Carnegie wanted, and see what happens. It is the best social experiment we could make."
She warned that there was confusion over what the role of the libraries is. Libraries shouldn't be competing with sports centres for resources, Winterson warned. "Libraries began with the highest purpose in mind - to educate through the agency of a book. To encourage wide reading, deep reading.... Libraries and literacy cannot be separated. I don't see how this can be classed as 'leisure', not do I see how we have a choice between getting our bins emptied and putting cash into libraries.
"We might save ourselves a lot of agony if we took libraries out of local council leisure budgets and put them into the national education budget, allocating a basic spending allowance for local authorities that they could not use for anything else, and allowing them to bid for extra funds on top of that basic spend."
She went on: "Either we stop arguing and agree that libraries are doing their best to reinvent themselves and that with a bit of help, financial and ideological, they belong to the future—or we let them run down until they disappear."
She added: "I am not here to criticise the government but I would like to say this: stop making the poor pay for the recession. It was not people on £6.80 an hour who toppled the economy."
Winterson struck a topical note by a reference to the corporation tax controversy involving multinationals operating in the UK. "Who is going to pay for this new expanding network of libraries? These people's palaces of books where everyone can go from early in the morning until late at night?," she asked. "The money is there. Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to legally avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world?"
The Reading Agency founding director Miranda McKearney said the charity had helped create seven million "reading opportunities" over its 10 years of existence through its programmes for adults and children, including The Summer Reading Challenge. She said there were now new plans to create a further 10 million through reading challenges, author events, volunteering and reading groups.
McKearney also spoke up for librarians, saying: "Librarians across the country are at the heart of this [The Reading Agency's] work and continue to transform their reading services despite the harsh conditions they are facing in many places."
Photo credit: Peter Peitsch