‘LIBRARIES gave us power”, goes the opening line of the Manic Street Preachers’ A Design For Life. Do they still? With supercomputers in our pockets connecting us to galaxies of knowledge? What do libraries give us now?

The answers are crucial, as they feed into debates about funding and supporting public libraries, caught up in this wretched trap of austerity.

Closures, and defences against closure, are everywhere. Fife Council announced fifteen of them earlier this month. Free collections of books winking out in towns like Abbeyview, Bowhill, Colinsburgh, Crail, Crossgates, East Wemyss, Falkland, Freuchie and Kinghorn.

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Against that, minor victories. Cultural celebs like Kirsty Wark and Val McDiarmid put their names to the successful “Save Newarthill Library” campaign (under threat from North Lanarkshire council). The writer Damian Barr claimed that Newarthill “saved his life”, providing social refuge for a sensitive, bookish boy.

Yet the passion around libraries in places like Newarthill also comes from the deep currents of Scottish history. Barr went to the Keir Hardie Memorial School, named after the local Labour icon who famously self-educated his way to greatness. The UK’s first subscription library, serving the mine workers of Leadhills, South Lanarkshire, celebrated its 275th anniversary last month.

Recent scholarship shows just how doggedly the Leadhills miners both shaped and funded their library, shaving pennies off their meagre weekly pay to fill it with volumes of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, maths, science, history, scripture … Small, hard-working communities empowered themselves, by building institutions that gave them access to knowledge and inspiration. The idea that such a legacy could be currently swiped away, on budget numbers that are rounding errors in a plutocrat’s tax evasion, is understandably enraging.

The wound can be salted further. All libraries have installed their internet terminals over the last five to 10 years, trying to embrace the digital era. Yet one of the crucial sets of users of these terminals are newly-patrolled benefit recipients, who must check in regularly online, or face financial sanctions.

This is merely a sub-set of a wider range of “ready-for-work” services that contemporary libraries have been enjoined to deliver – and which is often invoked as their ultimate justification.

I am essentially with those contemporary writers who rail against this reduction of the library to a composite of training centre and welfare office. The Scottish novelist Ali Smith, who wrote a beautiful collection of stories about the public library in 2015, has said that libraries are about a “democracy of reading, a democracy of space: that’s our library tradition. It was incredibly hard won for us by the generations before us, and we should be protecting it not just for ourselves but in the name of every generation after us.”

The New York-London novelist Zadie Smith wrote beautifully (about her local branch in Willesden) saying “a library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal ... it’s the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.”

A democratic, free, non-market, non-judgmental space. Perhaps no surprise, some might say, that libraries are an easy target for shutdowns and closures.

If we want to defend the essentials of the library, Alexandria is probably a good place to start. As well as books, the ancient library had a lecture and performance hall, an eating place, and a covered walkway (“peripatos”) where scholars could stroll and discuss.

Whether old or new-build, contemporary big-city public libraries often, quite startlingly, conform to this model: I think of my favourite three, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, the Library of Birmingham and the British Library in London.

The Mitchell I know and love best, and I reel to think how many stages and modes of my life have passed through its rooms – as student, musician, researcher, activist, festival-goer, writer, and, of course, idle wanderer through the shelves.

On one day in November I attended a celebration of James Kelman, did ninety-minutes of singing practice, and randomly met old friends in the cafe.

Bully for Cosmopolis and Gotham! It’s not too cynical to say that modern central libraries in major conurbations can often be baubles as well as services, dangling prettily from the tree of urban branding.

But it’s the closure of library spaces – and indeed the library principle – in the towns and villages that exist between the bright lights of the big cities, that is truly damaging. Places that often have the life sucked out of them already are made to feel even more desolate, lifeless, unsupported. They’re even taking the libraries away ...

In Scotland, looking at the pattern of closures already under way, it seems as if libraries are going to be the next soft casualties of the funding tensions between local, Holyrood and UK governments.

I’m not going to wade into the blame-war over who is properly resourcing local services. Indeed, the sheer mess of it all makes me only more anxious that Scotland gets to a state of independence as soon as possible – where our revenues and expenditures can, at last, be both accurately measured and fully deployed.

So let me end by suggesting two ways that independence could give us the powers to embed the “library principle” in everyday life – a life where flows of information are as well-established as bricks and mortar.

First, we need to create a “national library app”, which gives certified citizens free access to all e-books published in the Scottish domain – a requirement which we would make of all content publishers operating in Scotland, independence giving us jurisdiction over media regulation. (I speak as an anxious Kindle user, who loves the private library he’s amassing in his pocket, but currently can’t share it with anyone.) Second, we should look to how the Scandis and Nordics are redefining the role of libraries. From 2014, Swedish libraries were compelled by national law to “promote the democratic development of the society by contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and freedom of opinion”. In the same year, the amendment to Paragraph one of the Norwegian Library Act read: “The public libraries should serve as an independent meeting place and forum for public dialogue and debate”.

Norway’s Minister of Culture at the time, Anniken Huitfeldt, said: “The chief librarians themselves choose and prioritise how they will achieve the goals of the new mission statement. The manager should be free to plan activities at a public library. I think it is important that the library addresses topics that engage citizens locally, to retain its relevance”.

Yep – you can imagine the howls from the bread-and-butter faction if any Scottish government put the word “independent” into a review of the library as a forum for debate. But if the knee-jerking could be calmed a little, isn’t this an entirely inspiring framework for the future Scottish public library?

We must be careful not to smother the unique, liberatory power of libraries. For example: I’m as much a fan of the 3D printer, or robotics coding, as any geek-boy. And to read reports of all these being installed in a range of Scottish public libraries over the last few months was initially intriguing.

Yet it’s more important that these same libraries have well-stocked science-fiction sections – say Charles Stross, or Iain M Banks, or Ken McLeod – by which visitors can figure out exactly what to do with all these transformative technologies. And skilled, empowered librarians that could guide them through the archive, or set up the necessary social conversations.

So libraries can give us power, as the future bears down on us. But as libraries – the imagination palaces themselves.