Will the great institutions that house our vast collections of books and knowledge one day be obsolete? Have you visited or even thought about your local library lately? A new documentary called The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas, by Davina Catt – who was on the jury for last year’s London European Film Festival in partnership with Vanity Fair – and poet and filmmaker Greta Bellamacina, explores the crisis point that Britain has reached.
Libraries, which are widely regarded not just as places to borrow books, but as public cultural and social spaces, are closing at record rates at a point when British sixteen to nineteen year olds are rated the worst in literacy out of twenty-three developed nations. What’s happening? Davina and Greta explore the history of libraries and address the importance of keeping them intact and local, along with guest commentary from the likes of Stephen Fry, Mike Figgis, John Cooper Clarke, Robert Montgomery, Zadie Smith and Irvine Welsh.
We sat down for an exclusive interview with the documentarians to find out what’s going on, why books and original material are vital to our success as people (and a legal right), and how we can find balance in a digital world without losing a connection to our history.
Hi, Davina and Greta. Thanks for talking with us. What is your own experience with written word and why did you decide to embark on a documentary about libraries?
D: I grew up in a family of writers and storytellers; my own earliest memories of childhood are intertwined with the stories and books I was exposed to at a young age. I’ve always written personally and later professionally – the library has always been synonymous with the written word in my experience – so when I walked past a closing sign outside my local library, it was the seed of an idea to film a documentary about the library history and their demise.
G: I’ve always made films as well as writing poetry. But it wasn’t until I found out about my local library closing down that I felt driven to make a film about their importance for the next generation.
In the documentary, there is a famous clipping of Malala Yousafzai stating that “a city without books in a city without a library is like a graveyard”. This is a powerful statement. Is that a thought that you share?
D: Absolutely; there was a sadness I carried around inside me throughout filming, as we visited after library facing cuts and closures. Libraries offered life to myself and so many others like me.
G: Yes, I think a library is a lifeline for so many people. In fact in the film I say, “a library allows you to act on your ideas, no matter how small they are”. Without a library you are left with a kind of cultural graveyard…it is petrifying.
Why is a librarian still needed in the current age?
D: A library simply isn’t a functioning library without a librarian. Librarians are inimitable: As Irvine Welsh talks about in the film, librarians learn your choices and can point you to other books/authors you might like, they help children with low literacy level or those relying on after hours education – they hold encyclopaedic knowledge of the collection. Librarians also serve the role of book filterer and archiver, including conserving old/rare books and digital preservation. I have thought a lot during filming about losing librarians and how in one hundred years, where will anyone go for any properly filtered and archived source material. It’s a truly terrifying but very present danger!
G: Because the librarian is the gatekeeper to the library. The librarian holds the keys to all of the information. Just like a university could not survive without the lecturers, the librarian is the same thing––a well of knowledge.
Can you talk about the pervasive feeling of ‘unfairness’ that underlies the documentary and the fading away of the nation’s libraries?
D: I think what we mainly wanted to implicate in the documentary is that libraries are not just places for writers to read. They are ‘a safe house’ offering protection, a sense of community, open horizons for all of society – indeed they offer opportunity and fairness to all. Under the last Public Library Act of 1964, libraries are a statutory service, which councils have a legal duty to provide – so how is this rapid demise being allowed to happen?
G: The unfairness comes from the idea that the next generation will not be able to move forward, to educate themselves, to dream up another world. I think that is mainly where it comes from. With modernism we dreamed the idea of free access to education for everyone, regardless of social class. If we close our public libraries we abandon that idea and return to pre-modern thinking.
The Library of Birmingham, obviously with a lot of funding, has transformed itself into a space that celebrates architecture, books, technology, music, art…is this what libraries need to become to survive, almost public entertainment spaces?
D: In directing this documentary, I came to see that half the battle in saving public libraries is about changing people’s mind sets – libraries and the digital age are not mutually exclusive. They can and must complement one another. Having visited hundreds of libraries for the film, I was stunned by just how much libraries were offering – you can learn a language, take performance/dance classes, or use the play areas with young kids – I definitely believe this is the way forward for libraries in the modern day. However this must be offered on a smaller scale too; libraries need to remain local.
G: The Birmingham library is really incredible – a truly overwhelming space. But I don’t think it is enough, libraries need to stay local. They need to be close and accessible for everyone. It is not just about what they have to offer, it is also about the fundamental convenience of quiet space.
Do we need another Andrew Carnegie to come along and save libraries for futures generations? Or should it be a more democratic undertaking?
D: Like many places of history and legacy struggling to survive, a new Andrew Carnegie would always be welcomed! However I believe the problem goes a lot deeper than this and libraries can only really be sustained with a fully integrated system working across society – we pay taxes for things like libraries, the government needs to uphold the statutory service.
G: I think it is a human right to have a library. I think the government needs to move the library budget out of the leisure budget and into the education budget – perhaps then will people start taking them seriously. Carnegie gave his libraries in a social contract with the country and that was that the government would maintain those libraries. We pay taxes and we shouldn’t need another Carnegie.
Is the decimation, repurposing of or consolidation of public libraries the opposite of modernism?
D: Yes; they are the embodiment of freedom and democracy, they forever changed education. Losing them is a huge step backwards and a very, very poor reflection on today’s world/society.
G: Yes, society will only go backwards with out them. It will not only create fewer opportunities, but more crime, poverty and anger. We need them to understand ourselves and our position.
Why do you think a library is a ‘safe house’?
D: As mentioned above, the library represents so much more than a place to borrow books. It’s a lifeline for many on the fringes of society, it offers open education, a sense of community, a meeting place, a respite from loneliness for the elderly and much more.
G: It is not only a safe house but also a way to modernise a generation. To help move a society forward and help the economy. The library is a fundamental right and should be there for everyone- no matter who they are.
What do you want viewers to take away from the documentary?
D: In today’s fast paced world, I want viewers to take a step back, remember their own personal memories and experiences of the library…how much libraries contributed to their own upbringing and how much is at stake for future generations, who will lose them. Libraries have heart and soul; go visit your local library – it’s the very first step to keeping them alive.
G: To be engaged, but also informed. I want people to understand how important it is to have a library, but also how history will change without it too. There is a generation of students who just won’t be able to live without it. In the last thirty years some people have become very rich in this country, but I’m sure even they would agree there is no pleasure in being rich in a country where the people aren’t educated. Education is the mark of civilisation, and libraries are the basic prerequisite of an educated society. It is a moral outrage that we are letting that slip away.
The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas has been screening in UK cinemas, libraries and various festivals and will launch exclusively from November 28th on Curzon Home Cinema.
Interview by Courtney Blackman