What is a library? Most of us would describe them as a place to study (or at least pretend to), or somewhere to find the books we need for our next essay. On the public scale, they are a place in which to find books, CDs or DVDs to use in our free time. But with companies like Netflix and Amazon replacing these traditional (and some would say “outdated”) media, do libraries really serve a purpose anymore?
In short: yes.
Libraries, in the first instance, are host to an incredibly wide selection of books and other media that can be accessed for free. In a time where it feels like everything is becoming part of a paid-for subscription, this is nothing to sniff at. Not only that, but with these books comes a body of staff or volunteers with the knowledge to give you recommendations on your next read, or just advice on where to find a book on the shelf! Many libraries have also branched out into a digital lending service to address the rise of the e-book. Far from falling helplessly at an e-book’s (metaphorical) feet, libraries are taking any opportunity there is, physical or not, to encourage people to read, whoever and wherever they are.
Moreover, a library can act as the first port of call when trying to find out about events in the local community, or when researching the different services that a local council has to offer. For example, my local library service in England will play host to the ‘Norfolk Makers’ Festival’ in February 2020. This event is a chance for creative, like-minded people to get together and well, make things, in a communal space where they can offer each other advice, encouragement and feedback. On the other hand, the library in the centre of Oxford (just inside the Westgate Centre) offers help with council services like getting a free bus pass, applying for a Blue Badge or sorting out a resident’s parking permit. If you don’t have internet access at home, like many older people, it could be the only way for you to access the services to which you’re entitled. Of course, it’s sometimes too easy to dismiss these kinds of things if they’re not explicitly applicable to us, but it’s important to remember the difference that their availability in a public space such as a library does make to those who do.
The term ‘public library’ includes the physical space, of course, but in some areas a mobile library service also exists, to complement the permanent building. Those members of society whose use of a library is hindered or cut off completely due to their age or lack of mobility can benefit hugely from a service that comes to them, providing books as well as local council services.
It would be completely reckless to write libraries off as an obsolete resource, especially having not even considered their more general service to society. Their tangible impact is clear, but a library is much more than just a storage place for books. Writers including David Nicholls and Neil Gaiman have written an open letter following the announcement of a potential £1.76m cut in Hampshire County Council’s library budget, calling public libraries ‘havens, refuges and getaways, the vibrant hearts of the towns and villages they serve’. The abstract impact here is just as crucial as the tangible. A library acts as just as much of a haven as its contents, an escape from the hectic everyday as well as a lifeline for those more vulnerable in the community. The beauty of a public library is that everyone can enter, free of charge – the young, the old, the well-off and the struggling. Their closures are always devastating losses for the communities they serve.
So are they really under threat? Hampshire is not the only county council to have thought about cutting their library budget in the past few years. Since 2010, there have been almost 800 library closures, with the possibility of more to come as every sector continues to fight for a slice of an ever-decreasing council budget. It’s unlikely that they would all close, since local authorities are bound to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. However, these terms are never defined, and are as such up to each local authority to interpret as they see fit. That being the case, it is not impossible that councils could decide that having a single library containing bits of every resource would fit the terms, leaving them free to close the other libraries in the county. The precedent set by these cuts is therefore a huge threat.
What do we lose if we don’t save them? In a more abstract sense, losing our libraries means also losing a generation’s love of literature, reading and studying. These are important without a doubt, but could we find them somewhere else? Probably. What is much harder to have without the physical space of a library is the community space it provides and, therefore, the sense of community it fosters within the society it serves.
A library provides a space in which one can just exist with a book or a newspaper, surrounded by a community without feeling obliged to buy or give up anything in return. In an age where loneliness and isolation are rife, it is more important than ever to keep these spaces alive – and not, as we might initially assume, just for the benefit of older people who are especially prone to social isolation. Loneliness amongst the young and the working is on the rise too, so what better way to combat it than with a free, welcoming space in the heart of the community?
We also lose the support given by a community if the space in which it functions ceases to exist. Projects set up in accessible spaces such as public libraries to help vulnerable groups in society could not continue delivering their aims if their access points simply vanished. For example, in every library in my county in England there is something called the Tricky Period service. This project provides free sanitary products to anyone who needs them, either as a one-off or as a more regular way of getting hold of what they need. It’s a ‘no questions asked’ service which supports the most vulnerable in the community without needing to single anyone out – everyone is entitled to use it as they wish. If the libraries were to close, the Tricky Period service would no longer be able to run in the way it does, putting those who might not be able to afford sanitary products in a difficult situation.
If libraries are so threatened, then, how do we go about saving them? It seems simple, obvious even, but the most important thing is that we use them. What better way to show how valued these resources are than to give them our physical support?
Moreover, it is perhaps worth noting that libraries also have a part to play in their own salvation. Just as many well-known brands have moved with the times in order to survive, so must they. It is not enough anymore to simply offer the free loan of books, CDs and DVDs when so many are available online, from the comfort of our own homes. Rather, much as some high street shops are doing, libraries must endeavour to offer an ‘experience’ to their borrowers which they cannot obtain from within the confines of their bedroom. For example, the library near me on my Year Abroad offers video games evenings for kids, IT workshops for older people, and a range of other things – including a workshop on how to prepare oysters! All of these events encourage people to come into the physical space (perhaps for the first time) and to use it for themselves. Once people have a personal connection to a place, they are much more likely to want to try and protect it. Showing people just what libraries can offer them so that they become personally involved in their existence is perhaps their best line of defence.
As a final remark, let us turn to another highlight of the authors’ open letter. It states: “To close a library is to say we do not value culture, we do not value community, we do not want to give children a chance.”. A telling reflection of our current society, perhaps, but not one we have to put up with.