Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I might go to Philadelphia and find it closed

Library banner philly AN American friend used to tell us that the United States had the highest adult illiteracy rate of any industrialised country. He was trying to explain what progressive Americans like himself were up against. Seeing all those other Americans marching against public health care, and seeing the ignorant rubbish some of their politicians and opinion-formers get away with trotting out, I think I can see his point. Not that those who read tabloid trash, even without moving their lips, are better off for knowledge of the world than if they could not read.

Still, I would never generalise about such a big country, which has produced some great writers, and contains such a variety of people and places. My friend lived in California. I'd imagine things are different in, say, Philadelphia. The place was founded by Quakers, for godsake, and Benjamin Franklin was a citizen. Philadelphia boasts the Liberty Bell, symbolising its place in the American Revolution and the thought that went with it.

When WC Fields made his famous quip "Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed", I imagine Philadelphians were proud of their reputation for missing frivolity, and enjoyed a laugh at their city with Fields - himself a native Philadelphian. But sadly, if anyone talks about Philadephia being "closed" in future it may not be a joke.

As my good friend, American columnist, Pennsylvanian and fellow blogger Sue Katz tells us:

'The entire Free Library system of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is closing as of October 2. No more books will be lent; no more after-school, ESL or myriad other programs will be held. Budget cuts are leading to the end of books for all those who are dependent on this noble free service. I have probably never used the word “noble” before (at least, not clean of irony), but for me libraries are key to democracy.

Without libraries, there is little chance for class mobility. With all its bullshit about America being a meritocracy, that all you need is to work hard (at least in the days when there were jobs), that the cream rises to the top, that you just need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, in fact we sit with France, Italy and the UK at the bottom of the class mobility list. (Denmark, Norway, Finland and Canada are at the top.)

Of course the Internet, you are saying, is the great leveler. That’s assuming that every kid has a computer. Those who don’t? They can use them at the library. In fact, they can learn to use a computer at the library. Librarians can help folks who don’t know where to start or how to continue. Let’s not forget that librarians were the one professional group who absolutely refused to go along with the Patriot Act demands to reveal info about their patrons.

The Philadelphia libraries that are closing do a lot more than lend books. They take books to groups in the community who can’t drop by the library very easily, like to senior centers and homebound individuals; there are programs for children and for job-seekers; they have the world's largest lending library of orchestral performance material; they have books in Braille, large print and recorded books.

A lot of people will be bitterly disappointed if Philadelphia goes through with this unthinkable deprivation. Even more people will find their lives becoming limited. Free libraries even out the playing field a bit, and with so many people affected by the greed of the bonus class, even a little bit is something.

I’ve been to a lot of libraries in a lot of places in the world, but I’ve never been to a Philly library. I hope that I’ll have that chance. The CEOs have received obscene rewards for taking us all down. They’re clearly feeling all stimulated, but for me, this blow is simply too, too much. Don’t lock up our books. Free the books!'

Read and enjoy Sue's article in full in her blog 'Consenting Adult'

I've not been to Philadelphia, or indeed the United States, yet, but rely on good American friends like Sue to keep me informed and fill the gaps that newspapers, TV and movies might leave in my knowledge.

On the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers' collapse which brought the other dominoes tumbling till they were shored up by the taxpayers, we are still seeing the repercussions both sides of the Atlantic. I'm concerned not just for what happens to ordinary Americans but because politicians here are proclaiming the need for cuts, and all too often we hear supposedly smart types telling us to follow American examples. Let's take warning.

Meanwhile, though I've no immediate plans to go to Philadelphia, I am planning to visit Jordans in Buckinghamshire in the near future. That's the last resting place of William Penn, founder of the US city of "brotherly love" and the state that bears his name. If I feel an earth tremor, I will know who is turning in his grave.

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At 2:56 PM, Anonymous Sue Katz said...

I must defend the tabloids, Charlie, as at least they have no pretense. I even like to read the Enquirer from time to time as I trust them more than the Times. After having been sued into near-bankruptcy (was it in the 80s?), they had a change of leadership, hired the best fact-checkers, and now are the most cautious rag in the supermarket. Or so the urban myth has it. I'm afraid I haven't fact-checked any of this.
Keep up the good work,


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