Award-winning novelist criticises funding cuts to libraries


Ben Okri spoke out against cuts to libraries in an event celebrating Black History Month in Brixton.


By Hardeep Matharu

Award-winning novelist Ben Okri spoke out against government funding cuts to libraries last week at an event celebrating Black History Month in Brixton, one of the areas affected by the cuts.

Mr Okri, one of Africa’s leading writers, read extracts from his latest work, A Time For New Dreams, to an audience at Brixton Library.  The book is a collection of essays examining issues such as self-censorship, education and the economic meltdown.                                                                       

Mr Okri highlighted the educational importance of libraries, saying the opportunities provided by them are being taken for granted.

“Education is central to a nation and one of the central aspects to education is our public libraries,” he said.

“We lose them at great danger – to our mental and spiritual health, to the education of our children and to increasing literacy.  So many things are going wrong in our times which are eating away at our cultural integrity. Libraries are important.”

Lambeth Council is one London borough experiencing reduced funding, with its libraries’ budget being cut by £825,000 over the next three years.

Speaking about his hope that people will become library-saving activists, Mr Okri recounted a recent experience in Kenya which had struck him.

He said: “I visited the biggest slum in Nairobi, Kibera, and someone told me that Kibera has more libraries in it than practically the rest of Kenya. 

“Even in the slums of Nairobi they are keeping their libraries alive.” 

Black History Month is organised annually in Lambeth to promote knowledge of the history, culture and heritage of the black community. 

In an interview with SW Londoner, Mr Okri said it is a good way to bring different communities together – to celebrate, to laugh and to ask questions.

“I am looking forward to a day when there isn’t the necessity for a black history month because it has become so seamlessly a part of education, but because of the imbalance in understanding and the teaching of this history, it is necessary.”

He said the inspiration behind A Time For New Dreams was the sense of a world hunger for new dreams, freedoms, and ways of defining how we can be as individuals and a society.

“This year’s riots are enough to tell us that something is profoundly wrong and people are deeply upset,” he said. 

“It is our duty to investigate the causes, rather than condemn, and see if there aren’t more humane ways to deal with necessary retrenchments.

“Education multiplies the possibilities of life because of the quality of thought that can be brought to bear on any number of problems. To in any way endanger this is to rear endless troubles and revolts.”

Having started in 1976, Black History Month has evolved from a small, localised event to one with a national profile.  

Brixton Library’s Reader Development Officer Tim O’Dell, who organises the event in Lambeth, says it is always well-received.

“Brixton is the heart of the black community in Britain and the event allows people to learn about different cultures. Even within the black community, there’s great variation between people from different parts of Africa,” he said.

“I see libraries as the bringers of the ability to have a cohesive society. I want as much funding as possible to be given to libraries.”

Mr O’Dell said considering the historical significance of libraries against the current backdrop of funding cuts is thought-provoking.

He explained: “Libraries were initially introduced in the 18th century so the working class would be diverted from criminality, to create a better society. And here we are today talking about cutting their funding.

“Libraries are central to this country and it’s a shame if we let that slip through our hands.  It will be future generations who will experience the impact of that loss.”  

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