Looking around me now I can see teens bent over their study books, an elderly gentleman enjoying the newspaper, toddlers scampering around the children’s section, and a mixed range of age groups browsing the music and DVD area. Since I sat down, a complete microcosm of society has walked through the entrance.
A childhood love of libraries
My mum took me and my siblings to the library once a week and that’s where my love affair began. The children’s section was laid out with a little train whose carriages contained all the picture books I began to learn off by heart. When we were older, my sister and I used to sneak into the forbidden teen fiction area to try and surreptitiously borrow Judy Blumes. I can still remember the thrill of leaving the library with a bag full of unknown books, teeming with worlds just waiting to be discovered. We would all devour them in whatever free time we had, and be ready to visit again the following week and fill our library bags afresh. Some of my happiest childhood memories involve finding a cosy corner in whatever library was available (if I wasn’t to found during PE, I was most likely to be discovered in the school library) and nestling down with a pile of books.
I now take my own son to the library once a week and look on joyfully as he makes the same discoveries I did decades ago. We come home laden with books – some old favourites, some hot off the press – and curl up on the sofa for a marathon reading session. It has become one of our favourite places to go together and it delights me to see familiar faces there each week, all enjoying everything a library has to offer.
Libraries in decline
Despite all this, our libraries are in decline and it’s an emergency situation. Since the Coalition government came to power in 2010, the cutbacks in local government funding have profoundly affected public libraries. In 2012-13, approximately 78 libraries and 14 mobile libraries were lost. Public Libraries News www.publiclibrariesnews.com, which monitors closures in the public library network, estimates that one hundred more libraries could close in 2014–15, with a further 200–300 turned over to volunteers. Reports also show a decrease in library staff members, visits from the public, the number of ‘active borrowers’ and books issued, and the number of computer terminals with library catalogue and internet access available to library users. A comprehensive breakdown of these findings https://www.unison.org.uk/upload/sharepoint/On%20line%20Catalogue/21589.pdf can be found through Unison, the public sector union which represents library workers.
This decline has initiated protest from many areas. Desmond Clarke, a former head of Thomson publishing, is now a dedicated library campaigner and has spoken out about his concerns that libraries fall to the bottom of the agenda when it comes to local council cuts. “Forty per cent of the UK population uses public libraries and millions of people rely on them,” he said. “We’re trying to get out a strong statement about the value of public libraries to key decision-makers in local government who don’t necessarily appreciate them and sometimes see them as a soft touch.” The public are also voting with their feet: in Lincolnshire, campaigners have started legal proceedings against the council, following a decision to keep only 15 of its 47 libraries open, with the rest being shut or passed to volunteers. Herefordshire’s plans to close all but one of its libraries were modified after protests from campaigners, but eight of the county’s 11 libraries remain at risk (facts from The Bookseller).
Why children need libraries
The protests against the cuts seek to remind us of how important public libraries are for our young people. Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen argues that “people don’t universally understand that literature does more than inform and educate, it takes children from the particular to the abstract, an essential skill for GCSEs and university, and for achievement. All the statistics show that kids who read widely and for enjoyment have access to those higher forms of thought,” he adds, “and cuts to libraries mean cutting kids off from that. The cuts will just make it harder for libraries to provide outreach work and school visits – everything around making books accessible.”
What you can do
The first step to ensuring libraries are places our grandchildren will get to enjoy is to use your local library. Footfall is important, sending a clear message that libraries are vital as a centre of our communities. Find out what events are taking place at your library – some host reading and writing groups and events for everyone from those with dementia to exam-studying teens – and actively participate and promote them. If you care about your local library (and all libraries in the UK) and want to find out how to protect it, you can find a wealth of information on The Library Campaign website, the national charity supporting friends and users of libraries. Here, you can also join in the campaign and receive issues of their magazine released at least twice a year. You can also find out how to set up your own library campaign group using their Library Campaign Handbook – vital for those fighting against the closure of a beloved local library.
To find out more about public library cuts and how they might affect you, visit Public Library News where you’ll find up to date information. In October 2011, The Arts Council took over responsibility for supporting and developing libraries (they are not, however, responsible for providing or funding library services) and you can find out more about their work here.
Libraries are a vital part of our communities. People from all walks of life benefit from their existence, but especially the most vulnerable members of our society who might not otherwise have access to books and library learning experiences. It is important that we take a stand against the disappearance of our libraries so that they are here for generations to come.