Zadie Smith on libraries

‘Local libraries are gateways, not only to other libraries, but to other lives’.

As many public libraries wait anxiously to discover how their services will be impacted by the local government spending cuts, award-winning author Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty) has spoken out in support of the public library service.

In a speech broadcast during the the March 30th edition of the Today programme on Radio 4, Smith discussed the vital role played by literature and libraries during her early life and education and suggests that

“I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green.”

Her story is a rousing endorsement of the value of public libraries: in addition to helping her mother to simultaneously raise a family and complete a degree course, Smith’s local library functioned as a community hub, a meeting place for young people and a ‘monumental and sacred’ space for study and concentration, in which Smith worked through the education that has lead her to a career as a best-selling author and professor of Creative Writing at New York University.

Smith makes a powerful argument for the protection of local libraries, calling for those in positions of power and influence, who may have little personal need for access to a public library, to remember how significant the service can be for so many different sections of society. She states:

“My own family put a very high value on education, on bookishness, like many people without money we relied on our public services, not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities.

Once you’ve benefitted from the use of shared institutions you know that to abandon them when they’re no longer of personal necessity is like Wile E Coyote laying down a rope bridge between two precipices only to blow it up once he’s reached the other side, so that no one might follow.”

Zadie Smith’s speech can be heard in full on the BBC website.

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