The time of the library is now

Ian Anstice, professionally qualified librarian and editor of Public Libraries News, explains why keeping local libraries open is crucial to our local communities

Library cuts have been in the news lately and you should care about this. Indeed, you should be acting about this. But why? Frankly, it must seem to you that libraries are always in the news some way or another over the last few years. However, that was not always the case. Before 2010, it was a rare library story that made it beyond the BookSeller. Why things have changed is not hard to see. Local councils are under budgetary pressure like they have never been before and libraries are in the firing line. National government has made clear by its actions (or inaction) that it will not intervene in such cases, even though it is its statutory duty to do so. This has led to a situation where, when the BBC ran a report on this earlier this year, it found that one quarter of all library staff have been lost since the Coalition government came in and 343 libraries have closed. You may be thinking to yourself now, so? The time of the library is over isn’t it?

Not so. Public libraries are life-savers. I work in front-line branches and I see this every day. One old man even came up to me a couple of years ago and said that if his library was closed, he’d quietly commit suicide. No fuss. It’s just life would no longer be worth living for him. He wasn’t even someone I had spotted as a regular. Just a normal person who relied on being able to come into the building, read a book and perhaps chat with a few people in probably the only real human contact he had all day, or all month. This is what should make you angry when you hear about the need to cut non-essential services to help save social welfare. Libraries are social welfare. What’s more, they’re cheap (barely one per cent of any council’s budget) and spread everywhere.

A place for everyone
Public libraries are life-changers. You may think that now we have the internet there is no need for them but that is patently not the case. A young child can read five or more picture books a week. Not even wealthy parents could afford that but that early reading plays an essential part in their literacy all through their lives. Later on, a schoolchild’s reading ability dips during the school holidays, except when they use the library in which case it improves. And it’s not small numbers for this. 800,000 children took part in the Summer Reading Challenge last year - that’s nearly a million children whose reading did not stagnate because of libraries.

There’s more. The student needs a quiet place to study away from the noisy riot of the home; the unemployed need the internet (and more than one tenth of people don’t have it) and a printer and the library can give that; the businessman needs a quick meeting place; and the senior citizen may need some help getting in touch with their children online. In all of these cases, the library is quietly there, making things better. In its own unassuming way allowing people to have better lives. The lives they deserve.

But, hang on, this is all very well, but don’t we need the money for the NHS? Look deeper. Public libraries save our health service a lot of money. There’s a lot of health benefits to using the library, not least of which the human contact that was so necessary for the poor man I talked about earlier. But there’s so much more than that. One amazing thing that has happened recently is Books on Prescription. This is where the GP, rather than prescribing expensive medicines, often for years, simply recommends a book. A book from the library that has been put on the shelves specifically for this purpose. I’ve lost count of the people with depression, with OCD, stress, with a thousand and one issues that use the library to learn more about their condition and how to cope with it. Think of the millions that that saves the country every year, simply on tablets.

Turning frustration to action
So you don’t care about others? What’s in it for you? Everything. Unless you are very wealthy all your life, you’re going to find the library very useful for something at some point. But as well as the purely selfish what’s-in-it-for-me, think of the need for society to have equal access to information, to study space, to non-biased staff. It is not a healthy country where one can get such things only if one can afford it. There’s a lot of geniuses, of now skilled and productive people, who owe it all to the library that was the one thing they could afford when they were young. In some ways – and, again, I have seen this first hand – they’re safety valves for neighbourhoods. Somewhere to hang out, to not feel frustrated in. To, in old fashioned terms, to better oneself and to, frankly, not turn to crime and throwing bricks through windows.

You shouldn’t just care about libraries in the abstract, you should get angry when they close. If your local library is grimy, run-down and only open twice weekly, you and your community are being short changed. That library isn’t open. It’s mainly closed. One of the tragedies of libraries is those that most need them are the least likely to be in a position to influence politicians. But you are. Dig a little deeper into the story. Visit your local library. Observe. If it’s buzzing with activity, fight to keep it. If it’s scruffy and empty, do what you can to transform it into what it should be. One of the cheapest and most universal forms of human empowerment that this country has. And we’re losing it, library by library. Week by week. It is time for you to do something about that. It may just change your life.

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