Tiffany Jenkins: Libraries are on a slippery pole

AM I the only one uncomfortable with the idea of pole-dancing in a library? In February?

If there is a time and a place for a woman to take off most of her clothes and prance provocatively around a long stick, I doubt it is between the shelves of A-C, or even in the “romance section”.

But someone somewhere thinks it’s a good idea – for Midlothian Council is pressing ahead with a pole-dancing class at Mayfield Library in Dalkeith, to run on Love Your Libraries Day on 2 February. You have to wonder just what sort of love they are looking for. It will certainly alter the stereotypical image of the old librarian with her glasses, grey hair in a bun, finger on her lips, saying “shhh”, which I expect is what they are aiming for.

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The pole-dancing class is, of course, just a way of getting people into the building, one of a number of “fitness” events. Bob Constable, Midlothian Council’s cabinet member for public services and leisure, explained: “The pole fitness session is a fun and interesting way of encouraging people into our libraries, trying out all the services on offer and ultimately borrowing more books.”

Now I accept that it’s just a bit of a laugh, and one of many other activities that are designed to seduce people in through the doors. I realise, also, that it will be somewhat different to similarly named events at Spearmint Rhino, or wherever is currently popular with the gentlemen. But I don’t think the plan will work.

The serious point is these kinds of stunts devalue libraries. A significant amount of the activities on offer take people away from books and the reading of them.

Just look at what else is on offer, from the same council, for the great library celebration (and I should point out that this is entirely representative, that I single them out only as an example of others). The programme for the day starts with singing, rhymes and stories for children. It goes on to offer a “crafts workshop” for teenagers and then a “music session” which is open to all. All very entertaining, but what about something on books?

There are, admittedly, author visits and writing workshops, which rightly redirect attention to the printed page, but then there is also an Xbox challenge, needlecraft, Scottish country dancing, crochet, a mini massage session and a jewellery workshop, which takes it away again.

There is nothing wrong with any of these activities. Except, that is, “booky table tennis”, which will also be available. I am told that this is table tennis with books. That is not a good idea. What is missing is a firm validation of reading. There are more events on offer that have little if anything to do with books and reading than those that do. Turning a library into a centre for other activities: music, craft, computer games and, well, gyrating just doesn’t cut it.

So what should they have done? How about a balloon debate on your favourite book? What about a discussion about prose, character or metaphor in one author’s work? Why not encourage everyone to read one great work together and talk about it? Or do they think the community is not up to it? That books are just too dry and dusty? It would seem so.

I accept and appreciate that libraries are in a difficult place. They are underused and undervalued, with threats to funding hanging over them. But unless they really care for books and promote reading, they will be inadvertently cutting their own throat.

Libraries are in crisis today, and all attempts to try to deal with the problem evade or exacerbate it. Because here is the problem: even outside of Love Your Libraries Day, most seem afraid of championing reading.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you probably haven’t been in a library recently. My local has shelves of CDs, DVDs, cookery and travel books, and more than just a few computers. It’s the same elsewhere. In the university library I use there are more and more places to talk, to eat, to do anything but read in silence. But if there is no quiet space to read important books in a library, then where can it be done and what are they for?

People blame the cuts for the threats to libraries today, but the attack came more than a decade earlier, when there was money, when libraries were co-opted into a political agenda that tasked them with tackling social issues and responding to perceived changes in society. In the past decade, libraries have been instructed to address “community cohesion” and digital inclusion”. In the process, libraries have abandoned their raison d’être in a quest to be relevant – relevant that is to politicians, not the people.

There are many things that libraries can do to be more welcoming. It’s not that difficult to work out what these are: they need to open at convenient hours, and be warm and pleasant to be in. They need skilled staff who know their stuff, who are able to build up their stock. Knowledgeable library staff can make all the difference in selecting and displaying interesting material. They need to be given the freedom to create a serendipitous experience which means the visitor leaves with something they didn’t expect.

The most significant problem is that spending on books has fallen in the UK to less than 6 per cent of the libraries budget. Ten years ago it was twice that, and even that wasn’t enough to keep its stock up to date.

Most libraries now tend to have the latest thrillers and romances, which are fine and which I borrow, but the great canon of literature is often missing – as is anything that isn’t a little bit obvious or that is just a bit difficult. Expenditure is directed anywhere but on new stock. Key texts are often not available.

This is the wrong direction, and it’s not what people want. Last year more than 300 million books were loaned from public libraries. Half that was purchased in the stores. Normal people think that libraries should mean books. It’s just that the powers that be seem to disagree and disregard them.

The writer Jeanette Winterson has told of how she grew up in a poor and strange family in Accrington, north of Manchester. The library in Manchester – a beautiful building built in 1907 with money from the Carnegie Foundation – was her way out. She started to read the collection from A-Z. After considerable hard work, she got into Oxford University and then went on to be a writer. I believe that Manchester’s library was a significant factor in this.

Imagine if the next Jeanette Winterson went to the local library today to read from A-Z. A depleted stock would be on offer to her, with too many gaps and exclusions to educate and challenge her. And it wouldn’t take her long to get the message: those in charge of libraries would rather she just go swivel on a stick.