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Hands Off Our Libraries

Sav D’Souza challenges John McTernan's middle class whinging

Written by . Published on October 24th 2011.

Hands Off Our Libraries

SO John McTernan reckons that libraries should be shut down as they are past their sell-by date.

According to McTernan, in his laughable comment piece for The Telegraph, “liberal whingers are wrong and we should shut our libraries, middle class liberals are fighting to keep libraries open out of condescension for the less fortunate and guilt that they, like everyone else, no longer use them.” I think that McTernan is confusing people having an awareness of wider community needs, even if they are outside of their smaller daily world, with pity for the less fortunate. Local libraries provide a service to lots of different people for a number of reasons. My local library, for instance, runs schemes to help under-five’s, people with disabilities and the elderly along with the typical services.

McTernan’s views are ironically the worst kind of middle class whinging when it comes to public services. ‘I don’t use them and probably neither does anyone I know so why have them?’

McTernan says that now that we all have computers, the Internet, "wizzy phones" ect., what is the point of libraries having computers? His comments show just how out of touch he is from the reality of many people’s lives. For starters, strange as it may seem to the likes of McTernan, not everyone has a computer or the Internet at home. Local libraries play a valuable role in giving people free access to a computer and the Internet. Sure, they may be an Internet café nearby, if you are lucky, but they cost money and are an expenditure as are fancy phones and ‘cheap home computing’ particularly if you are out of work. He also may have forgotten that we are still in a recession at the moment and it’s tough times. Also computers in libraries are vital to some people when looking and applying for jobs.

Library He loves citing the modern living get-with-the-program argument. “This is the 21st century… virtually every kid has a desk at home... and libraries at secondary schools are, in my experience, uniformly good and open places for young people.” Again, he is adhering to some kind of universal norm, what about the kids who may have chaotic home lives or god forbid have the good sense to go to the library, to maybe study with friends, free from restrictions of space or to escape external distractions? Do all secondary schools really offer adequate places for study?

McTernan’s views are ironically the worst kind of middle class whinging when it comes to public services. "I don’t use them and probably neither does anyone I know so why have them?" It’s not wrong to see the value of public or subsidized services for others – even if you don’t personally use them. Born out of ‘condescension’ or ‘guilt’, spare us the amateur psychobabble please.

The public outcry against Brent Council’s decision to shut six of its libraries is described by McTernan as "sentimental" and "sickly." Closing libraries touches raw nerves because people think that they are important, almost scared, and something available to all rich or poor. Literacy levels are already lagging behind other countries so shutting libraries probably will not help matters. It may effect the practice of parents being able to introduce their kids to the joys and benefits of reading at an early age.  

Books are not just for instruction or education they are entertainment and to be enjoyed. Access to a variety of books and reading is part our tradition, our history and something worth preserving. Not for nostalgic reasons but because it says something about our society: free libraries, free entry to museums and galleries and free NHS. We’ve let slip the right to free further education, are libraries next?


As McTernan argues with Google and the masses of information on the Internet, arts based TV channels and things called Abebooks and Alibris (never heard of them, but apparently they offer thousands of secondhand books to buy, er, so a bit like Amazon, yeah thanks for that) the days of going to the library and asking for a book is anachronistic. It’s all too easy to believe something you read on the internet or see on the telly as gospel. Any serious research typically involves books in some way. 

For McTernan “the crisis in our libraries is not because of the ‘cuts’ – it’s because they are needed less.” But it is precisely because councils are under great pressure to make cuts that they are cutting library opening hours and trying to shut them down.

It’s explains a lot that McTernan was a policy wonk for the Blair government. A Tory against public services fine, but New Labour? All in all, it’s hard not to take McTernan’s piece as anything more than shameful online agitation to invoke outrage and manipulate increases in reader participation/comments as a result. Job done maybe, but estimation of Mr. McTernan based on article – just above plankton.

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