I recently found myself outside St Paul's Cathedral, on the site of the Occupy the Stock Exchange (OSX) camp. My own feelings towards the protestors are mixed; I sympathise with many of their concerns (however incoherently expressed), but I abhor the desire of some of its spokespeople for a ruck with the City of London Police. However, any visitor to the site will be struck by the passion with which the camp's participants are expressing themselves.
The "Arab Spring" has been labelled as the first revolution driven by social networking, with Twitter and Facebook playing an important part in gathering dissenters and providing censorship-free communication. Closer to home, August's rioters (and non-rioters) have been identified and charged in part thanks to their open use of social media; and OSX is dependent on Starbucks to keep their smartphones recharged and their Twitter accounts buzzing.
But what struck me most at St Paul's was the importance of the physical written word. The colonnade along St Paul's Churchyard, which forms the outer wall of Paternoster Square, has been plastered with notices and signs. These notices promote events, and express multiple points of view – some aggressive, directed at City bosses, others pacific, seeking a more equable approach to sharing capitalism's abundance. And next to this wall of noise, reminiscent of dissident fly-posting in an authoritarian state, is the OSX library. At first glance, this tentful of bookcases and old books looks much the same as a second-hand stall at a literary festival. Books are being widely donated to the library, and cover a broad spectrum of interest. And I found myself thinking, not for the first time, what happens if/when all these books just . . . go away?
A book can be an incendiary repository of ideas, as Waterstone's best-ever brand promotion demonstrated many years ago, using burnt and defaced books to underline the power of the written word. But once today's political and inspirational texts are confined to Kindles, Kobos and iPads, with various degrees of DRM and "walled garden" protection, what will take the place of the tent full of ideas, with its shared marginal notes and the marks of a hundred pairs of hands?
It's ironic that a new, free library has sprung up in the heart of London, at exactly the same time as other libraries across England, at the heart of their communities, are being threatened with closure in order to make relatively paltry cash savings for local authorities. The fact that libraries have become a central part of the Occupy… protests around the world attests to their importance in an informed society. By sharing books, we share wisdom and ideas – whatever rights and wrongs any individual may read into a book's content. Closed public libraries and restricted digital access are two sides of two different coins, but any change that limits contact with ideas and inspiration – for everyone – fills me with concern.