It may seem obvious, but I think we can sometimes forget that libraries are not just about books, they’re about people: the people that write the books, that select the books, and those that borrow and use the books. I admit this is an overly simplistic view to make a point, but I am deeply disturbed by the lack of concern for those people shown by the local authorities of this country in their rush to disband library services as we know them. Times are hard and money is short, but even in the toughest times the current and future needs of the community should drive change rather than ideology or simple cost-cutting.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about libraries, and I personally owe a huge debt to the public library service. Books were a luxury that my family couldn’t afford, and my weekly visits with my nan to the little library round the corner fed my appetite for fiction. My love of art was nourished by the beautiful art books that I borrowed, none of which I could ever have afforded to buy. I borrowed travel guides about holiday destinations when I was a carefree twentysomething, and plundered the shelves of cookery books when my son refused to eat anything I cooked. The library has provided entertainment, knowledge, comfort and reassurance at each stage of my life so far.
And now, as a family with two children we regularly use a number of libraries close to us, and our life is enriched in many ways: the children borrow books to read for pleasure and for homework; my husband and I borrow books to read on the daily commute and in our spare time; we all looked forward to Rhymetime when they were little, and we have fun taking part in the activities for children in the holidays, as well as playing games on the computers. We are lucky as our local library is well used and is not directly threatened, but behind the scenes things have been cut back drastically, and this will undoubtedly affect frontline services. The number of professional librarians has been halved, and training budgets are a thing of the past. The library service admits that it is severely underfunded, and as I write the council are seeking alternative ways of providing it. These alternatives include being run by volunteers or outsourcing to private companies.
I’m not opposed to investigating other models, but what I do find offensive is the implication that the service does not need to develop alongside its community and is not worth investing in. Advances in technology are moving rapidly and without investment public libraries risk becoming out of date, and therefore expendable. Will library volunteers want to invest time and effort in managing complicated IT networks and understanding the needs of their local community? Will a private company want to run a holiday reading scheme and associated events if they don’t generate profit? My concern is how we ensure that our library services are not decimated to make short-term, relatively small-scale savings which in the long run could have devastating effects on the prosperity of our young people. I want the little library round the corner to be there for me in my old age, lending me ebooks and providing subscriptions to online resources, but also as a place for me to meet my friends and take my grandchildren to borrow books. Books and information may increasingly be virtual, but people will always still need the library as a place: please use your library card and your voice to show how much your library means to you and your community.