Another diversion from the main topic of this blog, but an important one, I think. Tomorrow – Saturday 5th February 2011 – is the Save Our Libraries day of action. Library services across the UK are facing dramatic cuts in their funding, and in many areas, it seems as if they’re being picked on as a soft target for local authorities who want to make cuts without damaging what they see as the real frontline services.
Of course, these are tough times (though arguably, not quite as much as the Government is keen to pretend, or they’d surely not be intent on changes to forests and the NHS that will likely cost, rather than save money). But while there might indeed need to be some tightening of purse strings, savagely cutting library services to the degree proposed around the country is, I think, counterproductive.
My library story
I grew up in the 70s, with my brother, in Winchester. We weren’t poor, but nor did we have cash to spare. And joining the library was the way we got many of our books. The first book I can remember borrowing from the library was a Hardy Boys mystery – I think it was “The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge.” And I really don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that that started me on a lifelong love of reading; I voraciously consumed many of the Hardy Boys mysteries, and moved on to better quality content.
I stuck with the library when it was being refurbished, and moved temporarily out of the magnificent building on Jewry Street to a dark and gloomy temporary home on Parchment Street, and followed it back to the old building, learning how to find things in the Dewey index for homework and later university.
As a teenager, with a developing interest in electronics, the reference library on North Walls was where I’d go to look up information in back issues of magazines, or find the circuit diagrams of TVs and radios, in my attempts to get them working again.
At boarding school, I became a librarian, cataloguing all the books in the library we had in Junior House, and perhaps it was hanging around the library that started my involvement with the school magazine, which – among other things – led to the work I do now, writing and editing for the IT press.
I may not use the library as much now as I did when I was younger – to be honest, it’s years since I borrowed a physical book, and a few months since I checked out an eBook – but I don’t believe I’d be the person I am now, had I not had access to all the wonders of the library when I was growing up.
More than books
Today, of course, libraries are about more than just books; I know some people decry this, and think it’s dreadful that you can borrow DVDs – back in the 1970s, of course, it was vinyl LPs, tucked away in a corner in Jewry Street.
But there are other very important things they do too. The brilliantly refurbished Clapton Library, just round the corner from my flat, has computer terminals, and space where people can work.
It’s all too easy for people who have relative wealth, and the space that it brings, to forget that many, many people have neither. And while the ‘tsars’ of digital inclusion talk about providing computers that cost £100 and internet access for £9 a month, they forget that for many, that’s still more than they can afford.
As successive governments seek to provide more services online, and many companies make their best deals available only to those who can buy via the internet, libraries are important for much more than just access to knowledge on paper.
They can provide a vital way for people to access services, and they can also provide the only space where someone living in cramped, overcrowded accommodation will be able to access the information they need, in the atmosphere they need, to study and try as hard as they can to make things a little better for themselves, by succeeding at school or college.
Things like that are hard to quantify, let alone put a monetary cost on. But that doesn’t mean they’re less important. Everyone should have the best opportunities to succeed, and for many, especially in deprived areas, libraries are a vital part of that. You might not see the effect for years – but if just a few of those kids using the computers, or doing their homework in the library grow up to be doctors, and lawyers, or whatever else they want to be, it’s worth it.
Libraries can be a social space too, enabling other important work; a couple of weeks ago, Stamford Hill library was host to a Healthy Living day, with people on hand to give advice about exercise, diabetes, coronary care, and lots more things – and all in a much more relaxed atmosphere than a doctor’s waiting room.
Make your voice heard
So, you may not use your library yourself; you might be lucky enough to be able to buy all the books you want, and to have internet access at home. You might think that they’re dumbing down because they’re not always silent temples of learning any more.
But please, don’t ever think that they’re not important. Stand up for your local library service. They really are vital, to all sections of society. Just because they don’t produce instantly measurable results doesn’t mean they’re not worth funding.