“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
I’m sure you’ve seen this quote all over social media, supposedly by the classical writer Cicero. However, I’d never seen the source given, leading me to suppose that this was one of those fake quotations that the internet is awash with, aimed at those who would be in sympathy with the views expressed.
Nevertheless, searching for the Latin translation seemed to offer some sort of resolution, and so it proved. The sentence is from a letter Cicero wrote to his friend Terence (found in Epistulae ad familiares Book IX, Epistle 4):
si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.
The literal translation is something like “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will be amiss.” The implication being that if you create a kind of bibliophile’s paradise — an oasis of calm perhaps — in your private library, where you can meet and discuss matters with your friends, all will be fine. You can see that the slightly inaccurate ‘quote’ usually given resonates rather more with modern feelings about public (as opposed to private) libraries.
I don’t need to tell you that in these straitened times — when we’re all told to tighten our belts even more, when all the fat has been sliced off public purses until the bone is reached — much of local government in the UK is trying their best to circumvent the admirable provisions of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 in an attempt to fit in with government austerity diktats. And, equally, some of the public is trying to say “hands off” in every which way it can.
Raising public awareness of the threats is just the first step. Making the case for the need of such provision is harder. Challenges in the courts are a possible way to stymie any fait accompli that councils might try to make, and that seems to have been the case in England; for example, Herefordshire opponents of proposed library cuts in 2013 claimed that “The whole of culture and leisure services accounts for just 0.2% of the budget”, thus questioning why cuts needed to be so draconian. Public Libraries News, available online, charts the turbulent waters of changing library provision in the UK with a questionable political agenda trying to determine it future course.
Where I live in the Welsh county of Powys the County Council said it had to find £250,000 worth of savings in the library service by 2019 — part of its plan to shave £29 million off its expenditure before 2020 — and had argued that a significant number of its libraries would have to be closed. Because by law county councils must provide a library service, Powys proposed that six main libraries and the two mobile library services would form the core, unless …
A consultation launched earlier this year asked the public how it could cut running costs of eleven branch libraries by 50% whilst still continuing to provide a service. Eight branch libraries (including, ironically, Hay-on-Wye, the “town of books” and home to a prestigious literary festival) were regarded as at risk after an October 31 deadline calling for community-led solutions came and went.** A handful though have submitted what the county council has called “firm proposals” to take on the running of their local libraries, including my hometown of Crickhowell (which I have written about before, here and here). The business plan from the local high school included taking over the library for both school and community use (they had already successfully taken responsibility for the town’s indoor leisure facilities in 2014) and a recent county council meeting has approved this proposal. The latest news through the grapevine is that the transfer is due to happen imminently, as early as the beginning of December.
So, in amongst all the bleak news about Brexit, President-elect Trump, the rise of the extreme right and so on we see a brief, localised glimmer of light. When we’re fed scary stories that some firms have been including spybots and malware in products ranging from household appliances to vehicles it’s possible that ideas are the only dangerous things contained in books: ideas that can either challenge or console. Ray Bradbury was one of many writers to extol public libraries. He did it in his fiction (much of the action in Something Wicked This Way Comes is set in a library, and books are central to Fahrenheit 451) and he did it in his public utterances: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Are we not in danger of witnessing the slow demise of our traditional cultures if public libraries are no longer valued? It’s not enough to love public libraries; as Cicero might have said, we need public libraries.
And now, a little light relief, albeit the humour is somewhat black — let’s hope that this doesn’t turn out to be prophetic.
** Update on Hay-on-Wye’s library here: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/hay-wye-424246