I am a devotee of Philip Pullman, and had the incredible, amazing happy luck of actually meeting him in 2007. The His Dark Materials books have had an enormous impact on the way I read, the way I think, the way I think about books, Milton, children, teaching - everything. I am a committed fangirl, and I don't apologize for it (I don't fangrrrrl for too many things or people, so I feel I am allowed this one).
I am also a devotee of public libraries. Well, all libraries, really. But the public ones are the ones being pinched and pulled from both (or all) ends, and they're the ones that really do mean a lot.
Mr Pullman's speech talks both of the importance of the library to the child and to the adult. He talks of class difference, of the insultingly narrow view behind the idea that some magical squad of "volunteers" can just run everything. He talks of the faults of politicians and political appointees, and manages to deploy the adjective "Dickensian" in reference to one Eric Pickles (which is a Dickensian name if I ever heard one).
Public libraries in the United States and, evidently, England - if not elsewhere - are being pushed to their limits. Funding cuts coupled with increased demand and usage by the public equals overstretched resources. It's not just the nerdy, technophobic bibliophiles who are affected; it's the children whose parents make use of all the storytimes - for babies, for toddlers, for preschoolers. It's the groups who use the library for book clubs, for lectures, for discussions. The people who need the library to access the internet. The people who rely on librarians to help them find the information they need about taxes, about the law, about divorces and custody and dog licenses and geography and zip codes and how to become a hairdresser. The people - adult immigrants - who use the children's bookroom to practice or learn English. The people - adults - who use the libraries to learn to read, at all. The kids - of all ages, including teenagers - who spend their afterschool hours in the teen room of the local library (I have seen them do this in Pittsburgh - the teen room and reading/computer areas are never empty of teenagers). The adults like me who don't have enough money to buy all the books they want to read. The people who own e-readers and can now get e-books on loan through their library (the Pittsburgh library has e-books on lend that are compatible with what looks like every device except the kindle). The people who read music scores, who check out documentaries, who borrow music and movies and dvds of cooking shows.
Mr Pullman says it all far more intelligently and beautifully and affectingly than I can, which is why his remarks ought to be mandatory reading for everyone, especially people in town and county governments.One of the most profound comments on the function of public officials I have ever read comes here, in reference to the head of the county council:
"It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them."
Imagine that - a town board, a city council, a county legislature whose job is to protect services.
His final sentences are really admonishments, reprimands. Though I have heard his voice, and know it doesn't really sound this way, I imagine these final words being spoken in a loud roar, a bronze-bells sound that stuns and deafens and moves the auditor:
"Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy."