The following is a transcription of a three minute interview between Zadie Smith and Richard Bacon on Radio Five todayA year ago she wrote in defence of libraries and her passion has not dimmed.

Zadie Smith: When we were children, you’d never imagine that you’d get into a Right/Left argument about the purpose and use of a library.  It seems extraordinary to me.

So all I was arguing was I really don’t find it a political argument.  It’s about equality of opportunity.  You know you don’t expect everyone to be as educated as everyone else or have the same achievements but you expect at least to be offered at least some of the opportunities and libraries are the most simple and the most open way to give people access to books.

Richard Bacon: It’s a really good point that you address in the essay which is sometimes people say “well, look, we don’t really need libraries now because we have ebooks, we have kindles, and ipads, everything is online.  You can read a book, you can get any book you want, sitting at a computer you read more or less anything within a couple of minutes.  You can download it or it already exists.  It’s stored online somewhere”.    What is your answer to that?

Zadie Smith: The thing with the internet is something to do with its structure is that it’s limited by what you already know you want to look for.  That’s what the internet is structured around.  To google, to search for something, you need to know what you’re searching for, something within the general remit of what you’re searching for.  The library is a completely different structure. You walk in and you’re surprised.  You can go along a line of books, arranged alphabetically – which is a fairly random arrangement when you think about it – and you come across things.  That’s not possible on the internet.  One book does not follow to another to another on the internet.  That doesn’t happen.  So that thing of access is much broader.  That thing of infinite choice on the internet, that’s one thing but you need to have the knowledge to have the infinite choice.  The library offers opportunities for people who don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.

Richard Bacon: Some people in the ideological debate will say “well, they don’t make any money so they will have to go” and I think your point was that they shouldn’t make money.  It’s one of the few places on the High Street where you can go in there and no-one actually wants you to get your wallet out.

Zadie Smith: You can’t argue with people who feel that the only value of anything is economical.  I mean I don’t know how to even begin that argument.  If you really believe the only things that should survive in British life should be the things that you pay for, it’s kind of hopeless.  I don’t know where to begin with that.  It seems to me obvious that certain things should be free and accessible to all.

Richard Bacon:  Did you get into reading through your local bookshop and library?  Is that where it began for you?

Zadie Smith: Yeah, absolutely.  Like a lot of kids in this country if you don’t have middle class educated parents you need to find ways to get books.  A lot of people don’t have books on their shelves.  The library was the place I went to to find out what there is to know.  It was absolutely essential.

Richard Bacon: What did it mean to you when you were young … what did reading, what does it allow you to do?

Zadie Smith:  Well I owe my whole life to books from libraries so it is hard to know where to begin.  To me it was a way out of the flat.  A way of seeing different kinds of life, different ways of thinking.  It ended up being a way to become educated and finally a way to get to university and to get out.”


  • Speak Up for Libraries conference, Saturday 10th November 2012 – Speak Up for Libraries.  “The Speak Up For Libraries coalition is organising a conference for library supporters on Saturday 10th November 2012. It will be held at CILIP’s building in Bloomsbury, Central London. More details and booking form to follow in September – but please put the date in your diary!”

“In the collective consciousness of public library users, the frontline staff they see are their ‘Librarians’. And, please note, the livelihoods of these magnificent individuals were no safer under the former Labour government. I spoke in defence of Library Assistants at a UNISON conference in London – in February 2010. They had been hung out to dry already. By remaining silent for years on the matter, the professional bodies have let the relentless erosion of the service seep through from the front line to the back office. Now that degree-qualified Librarians are under threat as well, there is, rightly, shock and horror. Yes, the public must insist that qualified Librarians must run the library service – but SCL’s reply to you and statements made by others from the sector mean the way is left *wide open* for the frontline staff to be replaced. We call on the whole profession to start defending frontline library staff with all the vigour that is employed in defence of their own. We, the people who USE and rely on public libraries, want it said loud and clear. “We DO NOT want experienced frontline staff to be replaced by volunteers.” Shirley Burnham comment on SCL on volunteers replacing staff – Question Everything.

  • Zadie Smith says libraries are “essential” in society – BBC.  “Writer Zadie Smith has told BBC Radio 5 live that libraries are an “essential” part of society. Speaking to Richard Bacon, the White Teeth author said they were never about making money and that tablets were no replacement for them. Ms Smith’s fourth book NW is out now.”

Local News

  • Lancashire – Council libraries provide 24/7 access to The Times Digital Archive – Livewire.  “Lancashire County Council serves a population of 1.1 million people throughout its 74 public libraries. As part of its commitment to widening access to information, Lancashire County Council has extended the reach of its services with the introduction of a well-stocked digital library. “
  • Manchester – Pictured: £48m revamp of Manchester Central Library takes shape– Manchester Evening News.  “Through a mesh of scaffolding, the revamp is now beginning to take shape. The floors have now been rebuilt and a bright and spacious ground floor, which was previously closed to the public, will house a cafe, performance space, film booths, archives, local history and a specialist search room where staff will help readers to access some of the library’s most historic and valuable works which will be kept in climate-controlled underground treasures rooms.” Five colour pictures.
  • Warrington – Join us for a charity bagpack October 2012 – Friends of Grappenhall Library.  “We are seeking volunteers to help out for no more than 2 hours at the local Morrisons Bag Pack in Stockton Heath. The aim is to raise funds for the upkeep of our Grappenhall Community library building.”
  • Wiltshire – Trowbridge Library closes to make way for new facility– Wiltshire Times.  “Part of the first phase of Wiltshire Council’s £22 million refurbishment of County Hall, the new library will be opened by leader Jane Scott on September 12 … The library, designed to be bright and airy, will open into the reception courtyard next to a café, which has been covered over with a bubble roof based on Cornwall’s Eden Project.  Planning to cut its 95 existing buildings to just four main hubs, including County Hall, the council hopes to reduce maintenance and energy costs, and save more than £85 million over the next 25 years.”