I once helped a technology illiterate old man who had tried at another library to get some pictures printed from on his phone regarding extensive damage on his car to send to his insurance company. It turned out he just needed to upload the pictures on to the computer to print rather than print directly from a picture opened from the phone. Libraries can act as a source of information about digital literacy to people who have little to no experience in it, especially the older generation. Many libraries provide some kind of service relating to IT literacy, such as computer classes, but with the increasing dependence on information technology becoming apparent, less and less professionals are being employed, and instead many public libraries are depending on volunteers, that may or may not be digitally literate themselves.
Alex sent us this heartwarming post about the impact libraries had on her life.
When I was 8 years old I was given my own library tickets. It changed my life.
Like most children at that age I was curious. I loved asking why and I always had another six questions when you answered the first. My parents, reasonably indulgent, comfortable financially, were happy to buy me a handful of books every month when I wanted to add to my burgeoning book collection. They both read themselves but their tastes were fixed and their books couldn’t be shared with me. Mills & Boons romances, aga sagas, Dick Francis titles and David Attenborough books just aren’t designed for kids.
When I was 8 years old though I became more difficult to cater for as a junior reader.
I had the books my parents bought me and books that I got from the school library but these really only dealt with my ongoing interests in obvious subjects like Ancient Egypt. If I suddenly became curious in something that had just caught my eye, say bridge building for example or the history of lighthouses, my parents weren’t inclined to buy me a book for the passing fancy and nine times out of ten my school library was just too small to have anything on these ever more niche curiosities.
After a while it was obvious to my mother that I had outgrown what home and the school could provide. I was getting frustrated with the books available to me and I was reading less.
Juggling awkward library hours and school runs we started going to the public library regularly. It was this sudden freedom to take out any (suitable) book on any subject that saved me as a reader.
I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d still be interested in geology in a month or check the cost of a book and only very, very rarely was there a subject I couldn’t find out about. I also discovered proper, grown up encyclopedias which enchanted me, became fascinated in Teach Yourself books (I learnt shorthand at 10, Finnish at 11 and promptly forgot it all at 12 but I had tremendous fun doing both) and started borrowing classical music tapes after hearing Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and being completely captivated by it.
My parents were, quite frankly, baffled by almost everything I borrowed. They had no interest in classical music, thought the Finnish obsession was bizarre and shook their heads over the endless books on lighthousekeepers and engineers. But the point is that I was trying everything and they were happy to let me because it was safe, cheap and supervised.
Being part of that library, choosing for myself and trying everything, having the barriers of cost and access removed, getting to know what I liked and didn’t; these freedoms made me a better reader and a much better thinker.
One thing that often gets overlooked by those discussing the impact of library use on children is just how many conversations it can open up for them. The librarians, quickly spotting a kindred spirit, asked me about the books I borrowed. They recommended other books to me, teaching me to assess whether a book was a ‘good fit’ for me and whose recommendations to trust. Reading more widely taught me to compare books and authors and gave me confidence in saying what I liked and why. Explaining why I’d borrowed a specific book to my parents and answering their questions got us talking about books even though our tastes were worlds apart.
Those six little bits of cardboard gave me access to all sorts of conversations I just wouldn’t have had without them. They led to me studying academic subjects I wouldn’t have pursued otherwise (Latin and Classical Civilisation), kept me curious and enthusiastic and taught me that having eclectic tastes does not have to mean bad or trivial. They taught me to take an active role in my own, ongoing, education.
Today I read widely and have overflowing bookcases at home… but I still treasure and regularly use my library card. I use it just as I always have – to read more widely than I could afford to on my own and to feed my endless curiosity.
Alex grew up to be a book blogger too and writes at Alex in Leeds.
Alan Davey, Chief Executive of Arts Council England spoke at the Society of Chief Librarians annual seminar focusing on the future of libraries. During his presentation he commented that libraries need skilled, knowledgeable staff and shouldn’t be replaced by volunteers. It’s very reassuring that he made this comment publicly in a room full of senior public library service managers. It would be interesting to know how many people in that seminar were nodding in agreement with Mr Davey? How many of those senior managers were nodding whilst the public library services they are leading are proposing to introduce volunteer run libraries as a replacement for skilled and knowledgeable staff? If they are nodding in agreement with Alan Davey, then shouldn’t they be standing up and fighting for their public library service and fighting for the library profession in the public sector, rather than having councillors dictate the outcome?
The Society of Chief Librarians are in an ideal position to stand up against the deprofessionalisation and downgrading of the UK’s public library service through reliance on a voluntary workforce. At the same seminar Ed Vaizey stated that he will be maintaining close communications with the SCL. They have the opportunity to make use of the power they have as public library service leaders and champions and can set the agenda, rather than having it set for them.
If the SCL do decide that their member organisations are happy to go down the volunteer libraries route, what message does this give their staff about the SCL’s opinion of their worth, of the library professions worth and are they the right people to be leading the profession in this sector?
A rally and lobby of Parliament will take place tomorrow (Tuesday 13 March) in Westminster to highlight the value of public libraries and the important role they play. The event aims to persuade MPs to take action to protect public library services during these times of public sector cuts. Anybody who supports public libraries is welcome to attend.
The rally will take place from 12 noon, at Central Hall Westminster, Storey’s Gate Westminster, London SW1H 9NH. The lobby of Parliament will start at 2.30pm. Prior to the rally and lobby, Ed Vaizey’s evidence session for the Inquiry into library closures will be screened live from 10.30am in Central Hall Westminster.
The lobby has been organised by the Speak Up For Libraries coalition, an alliance of organisations and campaigners working to protect libraries and library staff. Voices For The Library are part of this coalition.
Since forming Voices For The Library, we have constantly had to defend public libraries against those in power who do not seem to understand their value. We’ve seen local campaigns emerge throughout the country in response to these cuts – campaigners fighting for their own local libraries against authorities who do not understand the purpose of libraries, and do not understand how libraries and trained library staff benefit library users, the local community, local economy and the UK as a whole. Many of these campaigners have been put into a position where they are effectively acting as superintendent to their own library service, despite this being the responsibility of Jeremy Hunt & Ed Vaizey. Local authorities have not listened to local campaigners concerns. Neither have Jeremy Hunt, Ed Vaizey or the DCMS. So now, as part of Speak Up For Libraries, we must take this to Parliament to ask MP’s to make a stand and help protect the future of the nation’s threatened public libraries.
We feel it’s important to attend tomorrow to show those who dismiss public libraries as irrelevant just how important they are and why they are essential. We would urge you to attend if you can – the more people there are there, the louder our voices will be and the clearer the message will be that we will continue to fight and Speak Up For Libraries. If you are coming please sign up on the Speak Up For Libraries site.
However, if you can’t attend, you can still show your support by doing the following:
- Email or write to your MP asking them to support libraries.
- Let others know about it.
- Distribute event flyers.
- Encourage your MP to sign the Early Day Motion in support of libraries .
- Follow Speak Up For Libraries on Facebook.
- Follow @SpeakUp4Libs on Twitter & tweet using the
#librarieslobby hashtag, especially during the rally and lobby.
The second evidence session for The Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry into library closures will take place on Tuesday 21 February (Committee Room 15, Palace of Westminster).
The Committee will hear evidence from representatives of Arts Council England, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), Isle of Wight Council, Leicestershire Library Services and the Local Government Association.
Further details of the session can be found here.
The session will be screened on the internet via Parliament.tv
The first session saw Abby Barker (Voices for The Library), Sue Charteris (author of the report on Wirral library closures), Andrew Coburn (The Library Campaign) and Miranda McKearney (The Reading Agency) give evidence.
Below are some of the comments and points raised during that session (paraphrased).
- Miranda McKearney: The passionate work of campaigners over the past 18 months has started to shift the debate about what libraries mean to us all.
- Abby Barker: A lot of people making these cuts don’t understand what a library is, or what it does, or what librarians can offer.
- Andrew Coburn: In local areas libraries offer a social place to build communities, based around services they provide.
- Abby Barker: Local libraries are important. Not all people can get to the central library branch. There is room for both large ‘destination’ libraries and small libraries to provide services. They complement each other.
- Abby Barker: The cuts are focused on books & buildings. Librarians aren’t just there to stamp books. Librarians are there to enhance your experience of the library.
- Andrew Coburn: A lot of what library staff do is about direction, mediation & assistance. The fewer library staff there are in the system the more difficult it is to get an answer from anywhere in that system.
- Miranda McKearney: Even though ‘you clearly have access to the things you need to live your life. Lots of people don’t’. (Response to MP about why libraries are needed)
- Abby Barker: If comprehensive & efficient could be more clearly defined, local authorities may be able to make better decisions.
- Abby Barker: Library consultations are being run from the top down and local authorities are not listening to or taking into account users needs.
- Andrew Coburn: What’s the point of the Secretary of State having powers of intervention if they aren’t used? He needs to “grasp the nettle.”
- Andrew Coburn: How will volunteer run libraries affect the statutory duties?
- Abby Barker: Volunteers can add value to a library service, but they shouldn’t be seen as a replacement service.
- Miranda McKearney: Partnership working on a national level with librarians is difficult because there aren’t enough of them.
- Miranda McKearney: There are some things you can only do nationally to improve library services – we need a national strategy!
- Sue Charteris: Local authorities need to look at equalities assessment of local needs.
- Sue Charteris: Isn’t keen on having more regulations, but feels local authorities need guidance from Secretary of State & Arts Council England.
- Sue Charteris: Library services need proper communications teams to sell their benefits.
- Sue Charteris: There has to be a prominent role for librarians in providing public library services. They are key.
- Sue Charteris: Volunteers are well-placed to do certain things in libraries, but a sound policy on volunteering by local authorities is key.
- Sue Charteris: The Secretary of State role needs to be more pro-active nationally.
- Sue Charteris: Current public library legislation needs to be looked at, because it is “cumbersome” and out-of-date.
- Sue Charteris: Believes that some kind of peer review would be useful to ensure library services are heading in the right direction.
UNISON, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), Voices for the Library, The Library Campaign, Campaign for the Book and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) have today announced they will hold a joint lobby of Parliament calling on politicians to protect vital library services.
During the lobby, on 13 March, the campaigning group will highlight the importance of libraries in providing access to learning and as a vital lifeline for many communities.
The lobby will take place at:
Tuesday 13 March
Heather Wakefield, UNISON Head of Local Government, said:
“Cutting libraries is not an easy solution for councils to save cash – it is a literacy time bomb for deprived communities.
“Community groups are being held to ransom by Government plans to force them to take over the running of services, or lose them. These groups don’t have the time, skills and resources to take over the jobs of experienced library staff.
“A shocking 30,000 children are leaving primary school with a reading age of seven or below and libraries are a vital lifeline for community groups. We need a national vision of a modern library service, as an investment in the future generation.”
Ruth Bond, Chair of the NFWI said:
“The NFWI is delighted to support the lobby of parliament. A threat to local library services is a threat to a community’s education and as champions of libraries for the past 96 years, WI members are gravely concerned that so many local authorities are riding roughshod over educational resources while the Government watches in silence. It is simply not good enough to assume that volunteers will step in to continue providing services previously supplied by professionals; the Government cannot rely on community-minded individuals to step into the breach to bridge the gaps, and the loss of professional expertise is irreplaceable.
“Local libraries are a fundamental information and education resource. Whilst in their essence, libraries facilitate access to books and resources, they play a much wider role in promoting shared knowledge and equality of opportunity, facilitating community cohesion, and enabling life-long learning and literacy from cradle to grave.”
Abby Barker, from Voices for the Library, said:
“Voices for the Library are urging anyone concerned for the future of the library service in the UK to get involved on March 13th. This is your chance to tell your MP how vital your local library service is, and to ask them to call the Secretary of State to task over his noticeable lack of involvement. The 1964 Museums and Public Libraries Act very clearly puts public libraries under the superintendence of the Secretary of State, however, Jeremy Hunt has yet to intervene on any level, even in the most extreme cases.”
Andrew Coburn, Secretary of The Library Campaign, said:
“Public libraries still have a wide-ranging role in encouraging literacy and education as well as providing literature for leisure and information. MPs need to know what a real 21st century library service can provide – so that they can join the thousands who are trying to prevent their branches being closed and services mutilated.”
Alan Gibbons, Author and Organiser of Campaign for the Book said:
“A reading child is a successful child. The National Literary Trust has found that a child who goes to a library is twice as likely to read well as one who doesn’t. The UK currently stands at 25th in the PISA International Reading ranking. Libraries are vital to improving this position. We have to fight for the defence and extension of public library services.”
Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of CILIP said:
“The professional skills and expertise of library staff are core to providing the public with a quality library service. Volunteers should supplement and enrich a professionally led service, not replace the knowledge and skills of staff. We are concerned that public library services in England are being damaged; the impact will be felt now and in the long term. We urge the Secretary of State to use his powers of intervention where there is clear evidence that the Public Libraries & Museums Act (1964) has been potentially breached. It is wrong to view public libraries solely as a cost; by providing opportunities for learning and literacy development libraries are an investment in communities, families and individuals.”
You can follow the lobby on Twitter using the #librarieslobby hashtag.
Yesterday, public library statistics collected by CIPFA were released, covering a range of aspects of the service. Amongst these statistics, it was revealed that book loans had decreased in 2010/11 to just over 300 million issues – a decline of around 9 million issues in a year. These figures are particularly significant as in the previous years library issues had remained stable. In fact, both 2008/9 and 2009/10 saw higher book issues than in 2007/8. So, after two years of stabilisation (if not slight growth), why has there been a sudden drop in book issues now?
The answer is, of course, obvious. Since the 2009/10 figures were reported, there has been a steady and determined assault on our public libraries. Staff have been subject to ‘brutal’ cuts in numerous councils across the country. Fewer trained staff leads to a decline in the quality of the service and consequently a decline in the number of people who use it. And it is not just staffing levels that have been hit.
Book funds have also been drastically cut. Take Gloucestershire, for example, in August last year it was revealed that their book fund would be slashed by 40% – a cut of over £200,000. The latest figures reveal that across the country book stock acquisitions have dramatically declined – purchase of adult non-fiction declined by as much as 14%. It is obvious that such cuts would impact on the number of books issued across the country. No-one could reasonably expect an increase in issues when the book fund has been slashed to such an extent.
Opening hours are also responsible for a decline in book issues. Library opening hours have been slashed in a number of authorities in a bid to save money. Of course, all such cuts actually achieve is to make it more difficult for local people to make use of the service which obviously has a knock-on effect in terms of usage. A library is not going to be used more if it is open less.
Finally, and most obviously, the closure of libraries has a substantial impact on the number of people visiting library or borrowing books from them. According to our partner site, Public Libraries News, thirty three libraries have closed in the period that these statistics cover. Contrary to the beliefs of some councillors, people do not simply use their next nearest library when their local one closes [PDF]. For many people, the closure of their local library means they no longer have access to a service they rely on.
Of course, it is no surprise that under these conditions book issues have declined to such an extent. Unfortunately for library users this means that councils will continue to embark on decisions that will destroy our public library service. An apparent decline in usage will be seen by councillors as the ammunition they need to claim libraries are no longer required and push forward with their programmes of cuts and closures. Continued cuts and closures will, in turn, lead to further declines in usage and issues…and so the cycle continues, destroying our public library network. It is noticeable that where there has been investment in libraries there have been record levels of usage. As long as councils continue to turn their backs on the library service, the decline that the CIPFA figures demonstrate will only worsen. Reductions in hours, staffing or book stock is simply destroying the library service by stealth. Library usage does not need to decline but it is down to short-sighted councillors that they continue to do so.
We received the following blog post from Hannah Bailey (UNISON Assistant National Officer) about her recent visit to Winsford Library.
Like many people, some of my earliest memories are of visiting the library with my parents and siblings (Bawtry library in Doncaster, now sadly facing the axe, was our local). From these visits I harboured a childhood ambition to be a librarian – I think it was the satisfying clunk of the stamp that did it. So my work at UNISON on the libraries campaign has been the next best thing, but despite spending large chunks of my work days thinking and writing about libraries, it occurred to me that I had only ever been on the ‘other side’ of the counter. Shouldn’t I really get out there and see what working in the library service is really all about? Ian Anstice kindly stepped in and agreed to let me shadow him and his staff for a day at Winsford library in Cheshire. Emailing to make arrangements beforehand, Ian politely laughed at request to see what a ‘typical day’ in a library was like – no such thing as a typical day he assured me…..
An early train journey and bus ride meant I arrived at the library just after opening time on a sunny Thursday morning, the last week of the school summer holidays. Ian and I are in regular email contact, but have never met in person; however I clocked him straightaway putting out posters to advertise the library’s coffee and cake morning that day. Getting inside the library there were already a steady stream of people coming in, many to take advantage of the cakes on offer (I duly sampled a raspberry crumble muffin) whilst returning items and using the PCs.
The coffee morning is run regularly by friends of the library, who all volunteer their time to take part in fundraising activities and events. The positive relationship between staff and volunteers was clear, and it was also clear that they were providing a supplementary service that staff would be unable to undertake alongside their daily duties. Complementing staff and playing a role, but not replacing them. This has always been UNISON’s view and it was good to see it working in practice. Later that day, Ian discussed with the treasurer of the friends group how the funds were looking and the possibility of buying some new furniture for the children’s library – clearly their effort is having an impact.
First activity of the day was story time for the under fives, with a (mostly!) captive audience of twenty or so youngsters and a selection of parents and grandparents. Not for the last time that day I was reminded of the pleasure of being read to, something which seems to stop as soon as you leave school, but I will always love. Rounding off with a selection of nursery rhymes (including requests from the floor) story time was a reminder not only of how pleasurable reading is, but also the importance of starting young with literacy – it really is never too early and libraries play a huge part in getting families and kids into reading, which stays with them for life.
Meanwhile on the counter, a constant stream of people were coming in and out, putting paid to the rumour that nobody uses libraries anymore. Remember earlier this year when John Redwood MP made some startlingly ill-informed comments about libraries after a brief visit to one? Anyone deeming themselves worthy of comment needs to spend at least a day in a library before drawing any conclusions. After all, a visit to an uncharacteristically quiet supermarket at 10pm wouldn’t lead one to conclude that modern retail as we know it is dead would it?
Mid-morning behind the counter was of the highlights of the day for me – a young man aged no more than about 12 came in on his own to return a stack of books he’d read during his recent holiday. Checking the books back in, Ian reminded him he had a few more out and did he want to renew them while he was here? He agreed, telling Ian that he was halfway through one of them, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’. Settling his small fine, he then left. This is the kind of kid we’re supposed to believe aren’t interested in reading anymore, too busy playing computer games or hanging round the streets making a nuisance of themselves. I was truly heartened by this – and you can bet if it’s happening in Winsford, it’s happening at libraries all over the UK.
Books returned over the course of the morning soon started to stack up behind the counter, so any spare time was spent by staff re-shelving items ready to be borrowed again. All the while the eight or so PC’s in the library were constantly occupied by a range of different people, from teenagers checking the latest updates on Facebook to people printing off e-tickets for impending holidays. While the volunteers packed the cakes and coffee away, members of the Mid-Cheshire Camera Club were busy mounting a small exhibition of their work near the entrance. The works are for sale, and as of one the members filled out the council’s insurance form, he explained to me that the library is the last open exhibition space available in the town centre to groups such as theirs.
An open building – it sounds obvious but it’s what libraries are all about. Still it was one of the points that struck me on several occasions as the day went by. Whilst downstairs the children’s library was buzzing and noisy, upstairs in the reference area there was an altogether quieter and calmer feel. I was told there is one man comes in every day without fail to read the newspaper for an hour at lunchtime. Then there were the groups of teenagers, in town and looking for something to do, drifting in and out. One man spent most of the day in the library, helping out the volunteers in the morning and staying for the afternoon. The library for him is a safe space, a place where he is welcomed and not judged.
After lunch I was invited along to join the RELISH group – read, listen, share – which is a reading group for people with mental health issues. There are seven regular attendees to this group, which staff told me was a real achievement. People who are ill and may already have chaotic lives drift in and out of groups like this. But here you have seven people who attend week in, week out, to read together and discuss the books. Everyone who feels comfortable takes a turn to read aloud, and after a few pages a member of staff poses questions to get the conversation going. It sounds simple enough, but seeing it in practice and the impact it has is powerful stuff.
Later in the afternoon there was some respite for staff on the counter to undertake other tasks. This was when I was introduced to the mysterious ‘back office’. Many critics argue that too much is spent on the ‘back office’ and that this should be cut in favour of the frontline. This obviously varies from area to area, however what was clear is that a varied selection of books don’t magically appear on the shelves, nor do titles which are seldom borrowed grow legs and walk off, making room for more popular titles. It all happens in the mysterious ‘back office’. And contrary to what some people believe, new books appear on the shelves every week in your average library. So for those who bemoan that the latest titles aren’t available, perhaps you should get down to your local library or hop online and find out. I’m guessing you’ll be surprised.
Winsford library is open until 7.30pm on Thursday evenings, the day I was there. Ian told me how later on in the day is when there is most potential for trouble, with the town centre emptying of shoppers and bored teenagers hanging around. Again the library is open to all – staff work on the presumption that people know how to behave, and only if someone is causing offence or disturbance to someone else will they intervene. But it does happen, and staff are often at the receiving end of anti-social behaviour. Not exactly the picture of a sleepy library in a leafy suburb that some would paint, but the reality nonetheless. It’s bad enough that paid staff have to endure such incidents, but would you volunteer to put yourself in this position?
So if I had to sum up my day in the library in a few points, what would I say? After spending the day working alongside a friendly and committed staff team, it was clear to me that:
- Libraries are busy, vibrant community spaces open to people from all walks of life
- Reading for pleasure is alive and kicking – you’re never too young or too old
- Libraries are about books, and the knowledge, comfort and power words give you
It all sounds fairly obvious, but the impact of savage cuts on local authorities seems to mean that many people want to trivialise the importance of libraries and library staff in order to justify their decisions. Anyone who disagrees with the three points above really should go and spend an hour or two at their local library and see if it changes their mind.
The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Voices for the Library
As many library campaigners in the UK probably know, the judicial review raised by Brent library campaigners began earlier this week. It looked very promising that campaigners had forced their Council into this position to save their local libraries.
However, it appears that one of the main reasons for taking this to court is that local campaigners put proposals to Brent Council to run these libraries as volunteer managed/community led libraries and these proposals were rejected by the council. (See here for more details.)
This came as a bit of a surprise to other local campaigners, including Voices For The Library team members, who have not only been defending the value of libraries, but also the importance of the roles trained library staff and librarians have in providing these services. The outcome of this judicial review could have serious implications for other campaigners who are not campaigning for volunteer run libraries, including those whose judicial reviews (such as Gloucestershire and Somerset) are due to be heard.
It also raises the question about whether high profile supporters of Brent’s library campaign, such as Philip Pullman, Alan Bennett, Zadie Smith and Michael Rosen were aware of the campaigners intentions?
The Guardian, (Monday 22 November 2010) stated:
Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, said he was “greatly concerned” by developments. “The librarian is not simply a checkout clerk whose simple task could be done by anyone and need not be paid for,” he said. “Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished.”
Surely this statement of support for librarians is at odds with support for the Brent libraries campaign.
Alan Benett also talks about concern for the privatisation and selling off of local libraries:
“It’s hard not to think that like other Tory policies privatising the libraries has been lying dormant for 15 years, just waiting for a convenient crisis to smuggle it through. Libraries are, after all, as another think tank clown opined a few weeks ago, ‘a valuable retail outlet’.”
One of the Brent campaigners concerns was the rejection of the proposal for Library Systems and Services UK Ltd, a private company to take over the running of some libraries. Even the move towards volunteer libraries could be seen as a step towards selling off the library service and “discharges [Brent] of their obligations.”
We also wonder if other supporters of the campaign, such as Michael Rosen and Zadie Smith, are happy to support this situation, bearing in mind that the value of libraries they used when they were younger – the libraries that played such an important part in their lives – were built up on the work that librarians had undertaken to develop the service?
It’s also interesting to note that the Brent campaigners cite CILIP in their reasoning behind their plans, indicating how library services should be provided. CILIP is the professional body for librarians and library staff, and as such, it’s doubtful that they would also advocate the removal of trained library staff and librarians as the main providers of public library services, and replace them with volunteers.
We are very concerned about this situation!
UPDATE: Since publishing this post a number of Brent campaigners have commented on it and we welcome the discussion this has led to. Please see here for more details.
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.