Reasons for Public Libraries

Public libraries are currently under attack as never before.  Quite apart from the imperatives of cutting council spending, many critics question the point of public libraries.  With the advent of the internet and the ebook, public libraries are described as out-dated.  They are also accused of being too Middle Class and of being a luxury we cannot afford when other services are facing financial pressure.  This page aims to address some of these points and to highlight the main purposes that libraries exist to provide.

Educational

“The National Literacy Trust says that children who go to a library are twice as likely as those who don’t to read well. It is not just picking up a book. It is the social experience of reading, talking about the books, browsing, comparing what you have read with family and friends. Librarians are gate keepers in that process. They open doors to new worlds, new possibilities. They ask library visitors to evaluate the information on offer. Most importantly, they give access to narratives. Children and adults do not just need information to thrive as thinking beings, but stories. Libraries are the temple of story. They are not in decline because of some natural, historic progression, but because of the monstrous cultural vandalism of savage cost-cutting. We will pay a terrible price for the behaviour of our masters.” (Alan Gibbons)

  • Oxford University study shows that reading books improves your life chances. Public libraries are seen as an important way to improve reading skills in South Korea where 180 new ones are being built. It’s interesting also that Russia is expanding its libraries in order to boost Russian culture.
  • Using a library improves your children’s reading ability according to National Literacy Trust.

“… a beacon of civilisation, a mark of what we as a country stand for. For we remain, per capita, the most literate country in the world – we produce and read more newspapers and books per head than any other nation. And it’s vital we keep it that way, as economic inequalities multiply, and the world divides into information rich and information poor.” (Tim Lott, The Independent).

“Libraries are where so many children discover what books they like best and become lifelong readers. They’re also great places for research. When I worked in Easterhouse library lots of local children came in to do their homework – browsing, reading and receiving help from the experts on hand, rather than sitting at home printing out reams of often irrelevant and undigested material from the internet.” Julia Donaldson, children’s laureate

“I have yet to meet the tiny tot who doesn’t enjoy sitting with a grown up and turning the magical pages of a book. “For many children the library is the only place they will ever be physically engaged with all the possibilities there are on the shelves. “That is why many small children’s activities are based in library buildings, a resource not to be found or replicated anywhere else. “Having a space where the sole purpose is to engage with words and pictures, to create memories that last a lifetime, is a delight and not to be given away lightly.” (Ann Chambers, deputy chief executive of Howgill Family Centre)
For the Community and Disadvantaged

“Libraries are not an indulgence. They can have a transformative power – especially for those marginalized, disenfranchised, alone, or simply open a world of stories and imagination to readers young and old.” Sharon Canavar, Chief Executive, Harrogate International Festivals. 

  • A significant proportion of the population (23% according to the Office of National Statistics) does not have an internet connection at home.  Those people most in need are precisely those without an ebook or the internet e.g. unemployed, those on low incomes, senior citizen. Libraries offer online and access for all, often free.  The United Nations has declared that internet access is a human right - public libraries uphold that right. In addition, using the internet means one can take advantage of special offers (e.g. comparison websites) meaning that by not allowing libraries and thus free internet access, the poor are being forced to pay more while the wealthier can pay less.
  • For all but the very wealthy, public libraries are great value for money – “In under 2 years if we had bought all the books we borrowed from the library we would have spent an estimated £3400, this works out roughly as a book habit of £150 a month, definitely not something we could afford.Our young son is the biggest user of the library in terms of number of books he borrow. I think having such a wealth and variety of books is a huge benefit in terms of his development, use of imagination, his language skills etc. Not something you can add a value to.”
  • During times of recession, libraries are a great way of saving money by meaning one can take out DVDs/Games cheaper, read newspapers, use wifi, internet, free community space.
  • Similarly, libraries offer word-processing, printing, photocopying and fax.
  • Many people on low incomes or mental health problems use the library as there is nowhere else to go.  Ironically, this is sometimes used informally as a reason against public libraries while others argue against libraries as being too Middle Class.
  • They’re about the public good, equitable access for all members of society to public domain information of all kinds and in all formats, an appropriate balance within the law between demands from information users, and the need to respect confidentiality.
  • Libraries improve the neighbourhood and increase house values.

“Morris Cohen, aged 90, spoke in favour of Neasden Library. He said: “Elderly people use it as a home not just a library.”Neasden used to be a no-go area but the library has been a positive influence, it will deteriorate if you close it.” (Harrow Observer)

  • The library is often the only place where the user can talk to others. This goes directly against the stereotype of public libraries as quiet places.  One user of the library where the author works has said that he would kill himself if the library closed down as there would be nothing else for him to do and no-one else he could talk to.

“But principally they are about people. People with a curiosity about life and the world around them. People who want to learn or escape into literary fantasy, people who like to meet. People who fall in love. To hack away at anything which is principally about people always seems especially harsh and counter-productive to me.” (Anne Pickles, News & Star)

  • Libraries are a free community space otherwise rare on the High Street.  This is especially the case in small communities where, unfortunately, they are currently most under threat of closure.“The government and the council forget that people live in places like Walney. When they close the post offices, the clubs and the libraries, then the local people lose meeting places.” (Sally Whittaker, 97 years old, Cumbria).
Libraries are well-used and popular, providing excellent value for money

“Despite their funding peril, public libraries remain one of the most popular government services and historically have fared pretty well at the ballot box. In 2009, voters passed 84 percent of library funding referendums nationwide and 54 percent of library construction measures, according to the Library Journal.”

Libraries serve other purposes too
  • Use the library as information centres/ one stop shops for council services like in Hull
  • For family history, local newspaper archives.  Many offer subscription-only online family history tools such as Ancestry, for free.
  • Start-up businesses often use libraries, be it for free access to British Standards online or for meetings/research or for computers/fax/photocopier.
  • A a beacon of civilization and a symbol of “what we as a country stand for”.
  • Intellectual freedom is basic to public libraries which help to sustain a democratic society.
  • Libraries are increasingly lend E-books.

Libraries are not being made obsolete by technology.

“Public libraries have a vital role to play in supporting the ambition to secure a truly networked nation in the UK. They are not only digital hubs which provide people with access to free or low cost PCs but also have a role in supporting people to get online and explore all the benefits that being online brings.” Martha Lane Fox, UK Digital Champion

“Darnton points to the fundamental role of the “library as space,” where librarians and other resources play a “service role” in helping people to access information. Traditionally, this information has been confined within the walls of an institution; in the future it will increasingly be accessed digitally. Because the Internet is harder to sort through than a library catalog, there’s a strong case that a library’s core services are actually becoming much more important.”  Stealing Libraries, Harvard Crimson

  • The internet may not be free or equal in the future.  “Net neutrality” is currently under attack, which may lead to two levels of internet provision – a full access paid for version and a poorer quality free version.

    “One of the arguments against the need for a network of public libraries is that we ‘all’ have access to the internet (of course we don’t but that doesn’t fit the narrative). This is all well and good at present, but with ‘net neutrality’ under attack and an increasing amount of content being locked behind paywalls, it won’t be long before we find that the internet as we know it is but a distant memory” (Ian Clark, “Shut Out” ORGzine)

Libraries are not entirely for Middle Class - Roy Clare (outgoing leader of the MLA) and John Redwood MP have both accused libraries, or campaigners, of being middle class – this is a response to them.
  • See above section on “For the Community and Disadvantaged”
  • Carnegie Libraries were set up specifically to help the Working Class,
  • However, what is wrong with the Middle Class using libraries anyway? They pay tax too.
  • literacy is boosted by libraries, illiteracy by closing them down.
  • improve them (better buildings, stock, etc) if usage failing
  • libraries provide free internet access, essential for those who cannot afford the internet at home
  • libraries are a lifeline for the unemployed – provide internet access, books on CVs, newspapers for job-hunting, books etc for free learning / boredom
  • Poor people need libraries for the free access to books and information.
  • Ceasing council aid to libraries would mean only wealthy areas could afford the high cost of running them as a community enterprise, leading directly to the world of Middle Class Only libraries those who advocate cuts now sneer at (Boyd Tonkin).

“Highgate library serves three council estates. Its learning centre provides training for children and adults. It provides the internet in a safe environment. It gives a crucial link to council services. Highgate library helps complement reading and teaching at my school. All classes visit and each pupil has a card. On top of organised visits, many come in after school. The skilled staff run well-attended groups  and the Friends provide reading progress prizes for my pupils. It brings different people, and different parts of our community, together.” Headteacher on feared library closure in Camden.

Libraries cannot be replaced by school and university libraries

Libraries should not be closed so x can stay open (where x is something obviously essential e.g. elderly people’s care, schools, etc)

“Libraries are a soft target for local authorities because they aren’t seen to be as vital as some other services. But for many people, especially young families, the unemployed and the elderly, who often can’t afford to buy books or travel easily to main libraries, the loss of a branch library would impoverish their quality of life.”(Martyn Bedford, Bradford)

What the Public think about libraries being cut

Gloucestershire have released most of the feedback from their consultation into closing libraries.  These were the main points given in rejecting closure of libraries:

  • Libraries cost so little yet are taking such a large hit
  • People don’t have the time and resources to run libraries themselves
  • The government wants to encourage reading and literacy – so why cut libraries?
  • Public transport limits mean it will be hard/impossible to get to another library
  • Concerns around data protection, safeguarding of vulnerable people/children, and training/support for volunteers
  • Deprived areas being worst affected
  • Children, elderly and the least well-off will lose out the most
  • To expect volunteers to run the service is unworkable – they will at least need support from some paid staff
  • We are told these savings are the response to a temporary crisis – but once these plans come in our libraries will be lost forever
  • Concerns over wider social issues – long-term unemployment, kids behaving anti-socially and wandering the streets, elderly or disabled people isolated in their own homes – libraries help prevent all these things
  • The process is rushed – both consultation and decision-making need more time
  • Concern about loss of mobile libraries

Speeches

Patrick Ness, Carnegie Medal acceptance speechan excoriating acceptance speech, in which he lambasted the government’s policy on libraries”
Philip Pullman “Leave the libraries alone, you don’t understand their value”. Widely publicised and well-received speech by the world-famous author.

Thank you to VftL member Ian Anstice for allowing us to reproduce this page, originally posted on his Public Libraries News site.

2 thoughts on “Reasons for Public Libraries

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