Spain through the looking glass

Reading between the lines

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Today is National Library Day in Spain but the country’s readers have little cause for celebration.

The budget for Spain’s network of 52 national libraries has been slashed by 20 per cent over the last two years and anecdotal evidence suggests the picture for the country’s more than 5,000 municipal libraries is even grimmer.

A week ago, leading Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on the dire financial situation of the library of Guadalajara, a town of some 85,000 people about an hour’s drive from Madrid. To all intents and purposes, Guadalajara’s library is a resounding success story. Frequented by 40 per cent of the local population, it boasts over 30,000 users. The institution doesn’t just loan out books; it has positioned itself as a centre of cultural activity by running reading clubs, staging concerts and hosting art exhibitions. But the money has dried up.

Back in 2007, before the crisis hit, this thriving library had €150,000 to splash on new material. This year, the figure is down to €46,000. In 2013, the library’s administrators are expecting nothing. That’s right. Not one euro.

Fortunately for Guadalajara, its citizens are helping pick up the tab. Readers are currently forking out for subscriptions to 62 publications and a number of library card holders have donated their entire book collections to help keep the shelves interesting.

But the outlook for most of Spain’s libraries is not as positive. The latest figures from Spain’s culture ministry show that 56 institutions saw their doors close for good in 2010. In 2006 and 2007, by contrast, a total of 170 libraries were born.

One of the institutions that closed last year was in the conservative southern city of Granada. Towards the end of 2011, a group of concerned residents in the neighbourhood of Zaidín staged a long protest to draw attention to the plight of their local lending library. After a 3-month standoff, they suffered the indignity of being forcefully removed by local police.

Footage of the event shows protesters cheerfully singing on the library steps on a cold winter morning. At one point, a large red truck pulls up and the drivers emerge to strip the small municipal library of its treasures. Several members of the Policía Local have also turned up for good measure. These officers proceed to politely explain their actions to the gathered protesters and then begin to carry away the irate locals one at a time.

The actions of the police were – procedurally speaking at least – beyond reproach, but the frustration of the aggrieved locals is indicative of the way that many people in Spain are beginning to see such cuts as unnecessarily punitive.

There is, too, something particularly dispiriting about reductions in spending on culture. As the Spanish novelist Javier Marías pointed out in a recent post to his weekly blog, the more difficult everyday life becomes, the greater our need for escape.

In a staunch defence of his industry, Marías pointed out that what people call “culture” – whether movies or books or music – contributes 4 per cent to Spain’s GDP and provides jobs to some 600,000 people. More importantly, though, the novelist stressed the loss to the imaginative realm that is resulting from the Spanish government’s penchant for budget cuts.

Marías finishes by quoting Isak Dinesen who once said: “All pain becomes bearable if it is transformed into a story.” Unfortunately, the story of Spain’s crisis is far from over.


Written by georgemills25

October 24, 2012 at 12:16

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