Yesterday, while waiting for my bike to be repaired in one of the nearest decent cycle shops to Witney (i.e. Oxford), I had a few hours of free time in which to rattle round in the city centre. Luckily I’d planned ahead, though, and brought my laptop with me. Thinking of where I might be able to sit down and use it, I remembered the public library. I might, I decided, also catch up on a few books while I was there, as I’m planning another story extravaganza in time for this Christmas. Libraries still have the edge on the internets when it comes to being able to focus on a topic, and feed the imagination in a selective, almost situationist way that the web can’t provide.
Because I’d spent the morning transporting bicycles, my hands were a little grubby. Being still reasonably respectful of the communal resource that a library provides, I felt that a handwashing was in order. Of course, I reasoned, there’d be somewhere just to wash my hands. Even Blackburn Library has toilets. And a café. These two provisions may be linked legally, I suppose, as provision of comestibles entails provision of somewhere to rid oneself of it.
But a chap at the desk of Oxford library told me rather apologetically—in the way that people respond to time-honoured questions, such as you get when you ask a member of staff in Lush why they refuse to reuse or recycle their product pots—that they didn’t have a public toilet on the premises at all. The fact that I wasn’t so much a member of the public as an attempted customer of the library would not wash; nor, it seemed, would I. Furthermore, cheeky to the point of making me blink, he suggested I just pop into Marks & Spencer’s next door, to use their facilities instead. Marks & Spencer: that bastion of public services. Apparently they’re now in charge of ensuring that our nation’s library books remain free of chain oil, road-dirt and other assorted umska. I’m sure I should’ve been invited to the meeting where that was decided.
We can hash and rehash the reasons why restricting people’s access to basic needs, either by making them exclusive to certain demographics or (well, it boils down to the same thing) making people pay for access, is a pointless, patronising exercise in passive-aggressive power-grabbing, prompted by a HR-like snottiness that comes from people who would rather disable than enable. In return, no doubt, the library head(s) will argue that, if they put facilities in place in our libraries, people would wantonly abuse them, coming into the library only for that purpose. I can see where they’re coming from here: if you go around offering people books, periodicals and places to sit and read them willy-nilly, then there are callous, flybynight individuals who will indeed go ahead and read those books, lounging around on those very chairs while leafing insolently through said periodicals with something approaching a thought flickering in between their ears. The hubris!
Of course, I’m being disingenuous: they’re not talking about books at all. The argument that library heads would want to apply to toilets, they would never apply in a similar manner to books, and shy away from the comparisons. Providing books to the public; to—if you like—the nation; to—if you really must—the honest, hardworking taxpayer should never be confused with side issues like the efficacy of such provision being contingent on toilets, or adequate lighting, or shelves, or floors. Quite right too: reading and education are human rights which must be protected against barbarism; the ability to wash one’s hands, or take a simple shit, is a bourgeois frippery that the free market should provide for instead.
I notice that, despite having no toilets, the library still manages to smell of urine, quite strongly in places. Understandable in a sense, as I’m sure a fair few people have been caught short there. But this is even happening to Waterstone’s now, who have put their top-floor lavs under numerical padlock: that unmistakeable tang now pervades the map section and much of the science shelves. Perhaps it comes from the people in charge so royally and shamelessly taking the piss.