I was sad to hear that Richmond upon Thames Library Service is considering making cuts. Some years ago I was a library assistant employed in two branches in this borough. So I thought I would write and share my experiences of working there.
Your first thoughts about the residents of this affluent area of south-west London are possibly that they are very privileged and wealthy and that they don’t use public services much – but that ain’t necessarily so. In among the districts where houses changed hands for seven figures, there were plenty of less affluent areas, areas of public housing, areas where residents relied heavily on public services like libraries.
This meant that the library service was used by a huge variety of people from all walks of life. Children at the local state primaries and secondaries came in to borrow books and use reference materials for homework. Often they were studying alongside pupils from nearby public schools that enjoyed national acclaim and whose parents were paying thousands of pounds a year for their education – but who were still relying on the local free-to-use public library to get the homework support they needed.
Our branch provided resources for parents home-schooling their children and for tutors working individually with children identified by the education authority as needing additional support. This is an excellent example of how a public library service has roots in a community and in that community’s wellbeing that are much, much deeper than many might initially suppose. How do we put a financial value on these roots? What happens if we pull them up?
Parents seeking opportunities for themselves and for their pre-school children to meet and socialise numbered high among the users, as did older people who might not have seen a friendly face all day had they not been able to pop in. We also ran reading events, holiday activities and a service for elderly and disabled people who were unable to come into the branch, choosing books for them each fortnight with great care and attention.
Every time a new best-selling book was released we had huge waiting lists of people wanting to read them. Our community noticeboards were covered with cards, posters and flyers for local events. There was a strong demand for local history and archive services and we were constantly making referrals to the specialists working in those areas.
Job-hunters came in to look at the papers, consult directories, use computers or the photocopier, borrow books and to get a little bit of moral support at a lonely and difficult time. And I met countless people pursuing an interest, embarking on further education, getting the information they needed to make some major life change involving moving, or study, or a change of direction. Suggesting that all this can now simply be done online from home presupposes an awful lot – that people have the access, the confidence, the motivation and the information-processing skills to find trusted sources. And, if they
don’t, who’s going to offer to help them, sitting alone at their computer?
Who on earth gets to decide that the needs and wishes and experiences of all these people, and all the others like them around Britain, count for nothing?
To me the most important function of Richmond’s libraries was their role in providing public space – a role that is almost more important in the small branches than in the bigger ones. And this is the reason why the borough should think extremely hard before closing them.
Libraries are places where people of all ages, outlooks, backgrounds, incomes, circumstances and opinions meet and mix. By doing this they get to know each other, dispel the demons of difference and realise that, actually, the things we have in common are much stronger than the things that separate us. These are the places where society is built. And they are not replaced by upscale book shops, town-centre coffee shops, health clubs with expensive subscription fees or anywhere where you need to spend money in order to belong.
We live in an time where public services are portrayed as services of last resort. This is a crying shame – and it is one reason why, rather than becoming less necessary, our libraries are more valuable than ever. They are places where we meet people who are different to ourselves and benefit from so doing. The damage we will do by cutting them is immense and lasting and goes far beyond the perhaps deliberately short-sighted debate over whether the Internet has replaced print and whether books are dead.
Libraries are about reading, and about so much more. And we can’t afford to lose them in order to have that brought home to us.