Libraries under threat – it’s not fine!

More than 300 million books were borrowed last year. Tens of thousands of people use the internet in libraries every day. Yet across the country, libraries are under threat, and unsurprisingly, people are angry.

From the Independent on Sunday, 16th January:

Hundreds of branches are under threat as local councils plan cuts that will erode Britain’s cultural base. 

Britain’s public libraries, for generations a source of enjoyment and education to millions of children and adults, will become the focus of bitter political battles and legal action this month as users fight to prevent mass closures.

Encouraged by David Cameron’s Big Society philosophy, councils across the UK say volunteers must replace paid staff if libraries are to be saved. But experts say that politicians have failed to understand the social, cultural and educational importance of libraries, and the role librarians play in providing services”

“Annie Mauger, chief executive of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), said: “This is not just about what libraries do, it is about what they represent: free access to knowledge and information for everyone” Across England and Wales, libraries face cuts of 20 to 30 per cent, which means as many as one in five libraries and one in four full-time librarian jobs are at risk, according to CILIP”

In Somerset, 20 out of 34 libraries were under threat, but the council is considering charging membership fees or ‘voluntary donations’ to save some.

In Wiltshire, opening hours at libraries are to be reduced as part of cuts by Wiltshire Council  in response to a 28 per cent reduction in funding from central Government. All bar one of the county’s libraries will have reduced hours. Ten libraries will remain open only if volunteers come forward. Otherwise those libraries will close and be replaced by the mobile library service for three hours per week.

Library experts, including chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council  and former poet laureate Andrew Motion, have previously spoken of their concerns about the use of volunteers in libraries. “Good libraries like good anythings need expert people working within them” Motion told the Guardian in June. “Maybe there is a role for some aspect of volunteering, but all the central stuff must be done by people who are qualified to do it … I think it would be a catastrophe.”

 A national day of action is planned for 5 February, but some have been taking direct action already:

“The library at Stony Stratford, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, looks like the aftermath of a crime, its shell-shocked staff presiding over an expanse of emptied shelves. Only a few days ago they held 16,000 volumes Now, after a campaign on Facebook, there are none. Every library user was urged to pick their full entitlement of 15 books, take them away and keep them for a week. The idea was to empty the shelves by closing time on Saturday: in fact with 24 hours to go, the last of the….. books was stamped out”

So, why are libraries so important?

I shall freely admit my bias here. I grew up in a house with very few books, and, although my Mum in particular  was very supportive of my thirst for knowledge (not that my Dad wasn’t, but he was working such long hours, he barely noticed what was happening with me) but with very little spare money to buy any. 

But within 15 minutes walk from our house, across no major roads,  was Ridge Road branch library –

and with my Mum’s encouragement (and that of my primary school teacher, who gave small prizes for us reading lots of books – which we had to present to her in what is now called a ‘digested read’ , to avoid cheating), a whole world of knowledge was at my disposal. The librarian noted my frequent visits with approval, and that I spent lots of time reading books in the adult section that my junior ticket wouldn’t allow me to take out and before very long, she ‘upgraded me’ to adult status. I fuelled my thirst for information, read both fiction and non-fiction, and particularly the biographies of scientific and medical pioneers such as PasteurListerBanting and BestFlemingSalkCrick and Watson.

Ridge Road Library, Sutton

DNA double helix sculpture on the front lawn of Memorial Court, Clare College, Cambridge

Even had there been such a thing as an internet then, the depth of treatment of such books wouldn’t have been available to me –  nowadays I’d probably be reading the Wikipedia and other articles I’ve linked to… I probably wouldn’t have been able to direct the consecutive steps of my reading quest without the occasional help from the properly trained and qualified librarians – a volunteer, an untrained ‘book filing clerk’ would not be likely to be able to offer the same input.  And maybe a working-class lad like me wouldn’t have climbed the educational ladder in the way I did – ending up studying at the university of Crick and Watson’s research, and training at Lister’s old hospital. Or indeed fat from the chocolate my teacher gave out.

As the Independent on Sunday said in a leading article in the same edition as the above-quoted piece:

“Libraries matter because they are portals of imagination, learning and information, and thus represent values that the coalition government claims to hold dear. What is the Big Society if it does not encompass a public library in which children, regardless of the means of their homes, can have their horizons widened? What do fairness, social mobility and “we’re all in it together” mean unless everyone can gain free entry to the world of knowledge?”

Charles Dickens expressed “the earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people” when he opened the first rate-supported free public library in Campfield, Manchester in 1852, two years after the Public Library Act was introduced to “raise educational standards throughout society” At first, Tory sceptics argued that Britain’s wealthier classes should not pay for a service that would predominantly benefit the working class. But donations from wealthy entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie helped to finance hundreds of public libraries. They became a gateway out of social exclusion and a treasured aspect of cultural life.

Andrew Carnegie and the old Carnegie Library Calne (now Calne Heritage Centre)

Catherine Bennett in the Observer quoted a campaigner as saying:

“Without libraries, many of the uneducated, unemployed and otherwise forgotten former users will end up needing much costlier help, further down the line, inside job centres, doctors’ surgeries, advice centres, housing offices”.

Which brings us on to the core territory of this blogsite, the homeless and marginalised – what is the specific importance of libraries for them? Obviously some points raised above about the accessibility of libraries to the poor apply here. It is also fairly obvious that libraries, as a free warm public place with supervision, address some basic needs. The oft-referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is again relevant here, with basic physiological needs of warmth and safety being met. These are certainly relevant – I recently wrote a piece here about surviving the cold, and a library is one place to address that. A 2008 piece on the website ‘Impagination’ (about the interface between libraries, society, and the homeless) says:

“Imagine having no place of your own and being unwelcome at most businesses or other private establishments. Public places may be open to you, but parks and streets may be cold or dangerous, bus and train stations noisy and chaotic, museums and art galleries.. lacking places to rest for long. A logical candidate for a reasonably safe, warm in winter, cool in summer, and relatively quiet place to rest for hours undisturbed is the nearest public library”

This would be also be true of day shelters, if they were more widely provided, and they would not require all the paper, IT and qualified personnel resources of libraries. But there are ‘cognitive and self-fulfilment needs’ (Maslow again) met in the books, papers and magazines, and….

“Public libraries also typically offer free computer and Internet access. Whatever your view on the supposedly looming death of the book, it’s hard to deny the speed at which on-line and electronic information is replacing and surpassing print media. For people with nowhere else to access e-mail and the web, the library is the place to be. And why not? Personally I can’t imagine how stranded and disconnected from the world I’d feel without broadband..…” and, to stress once more “libraries are free and open to everyone”.

The internet is now the expected medium for bidding for housing and job applications. And the main reason for setting up this blogsite was to encourage Doorway Project guests to have their voices heard, tell their stories, come to terms with their experiences and help others through similar by telling those stories, share resources. But even those with homes usually do not have home internet. Those at Unity House Hostel can compete for access to IT facilities there, and there are very limited sessions at the Doorway Project, the Town Hall, and at Waste Not Want Not in Chippenham. But none rival the library for availability.

Earlier this week, I talked to our blogger samsa.k , who was a rough sleeper only briefly, but in Unity House Hostel for nearly a year, before moving recently into his own tenancy:

“When I was in the hostel, I had no TV, all had was a radio. Between September 2009  and August 2010, I read about fifty books, all free! You obviously need an address to borrow books, but you can read what you like there”

“I hadn’t got a debit card or funds to buy books, however cheap Amazon may be! And I still haven’t…”

“I did my blogging both at the hostel and at the  library. If I wanted to finish a piece in one session, I did it in the hostel. If I needed more thought, I did it in the library, as there were no distractions, and so I could concentrate more. The Hostel IT room was usually full of the  younger ones using Facebook and being noisy.  I suffer from anxiety problems anyway, so that didn’t help. The library gives  privacy, peace and quiet, and so it’s also better for working  on CVs,  job applications, on-line housing bidding – when you need to be focussed”

“Sixth formers from a local secondary school come down one evening a week to help mentor people with IT issues. Someone from the Job Centre comes down as well to help with CVs and on-line job applications”

“I witnessed somebody being helped with their on-line housing bidding by the librarian”

So, mention there of a developing role in education, and the librarians expanding their already considerable skills into areas of broader community information and advice.

Some thoughts from the USA, from Rebecca Stroebel of Emporia State Univerity, Kansas, in 2008:

 “The right to freedom of information extends to homeless patrons and patrons living in poverty and provides a challenge to serving patrons living at the margins of society”

“Although it may not be appropriate for libraries to serve as de facto shelters, there are appropriate ways for libraries to serve homeless populations and cater to their unique needs. Many of these needs are for referrals and information. These referrals are sometimes for social service agencies, sometimes for job placements, and sometimes for free meals, or clothing. Other questions concern maps of an area, phone books or an area or other directional questions. Additionally, some questions concern seeking basic skills training or computer skills”

 “Cleveland Public Library has partnered with a homeless shelter to provide books for a homeless book club. The facilitator of the book club has “ noticed that participants pick the place where the character is at the crossroads. They are at the same point, and they’re trying to get to someplace better” Reading allows them a way to make sense of their experience…Along with the book chat, they have revealed pasts that contain enough despair – abuse, addictions, poverty, loss – to fill a thousand novels 

“Libraries can also confront this issue by providing training to their employees about ways to successfully deal with homeless patrons and mentally ill patrons. Not all homeless patrons are mentally ill and not all mentally ill patrons are homeless but they do overlap at times. By giving staff the tools to deal with homeless and mentally ill patrons with compassion and understanding libraries are better able to provide service to these marginalized patrons”

Ideally, we should be looking not just at fighting to preserve our libraries, but to evolve them further as a free community hub equally available to all regardless of economic and housing circumstance. After all, libraries have evolved a great deal since the first free ones in the UK 160 years ago, and should not be preserved in aspic. But we can only develop what hasn’t been taken away from us.

Final words from ‘librarianian’, a commentator on the Guardian Bennett piece:

“For those without computers, there are libraries
For those who need help, there are libraries
For those with no money, there are libraries
For those who do not live in London or a big city and want to see a book, there are libraries
For those who need an answer, there are libraries
For the child and the mum wanting to read a picture book, there are libraries
For a quiet place to study, there are libraries
For the lonely retiree who does not see another face all day, there are libraries
For the disabled man who cannot get out of the house but has books delivered to him by volunteers, there are libraries
For help with homework, there are libraries
For assistance with the online forms that are increasingly essential, there are libraries
For unbiased information, there are libraries
For the lost and the lonely, for the unemployed, for those who are not tech-savvy, for the child and for the parent, for the chap whose printer is not working today, for the unemployed man who needs to file a CV online, for the child with nowhere to go between school and 6 when mum comes home, for you and for me, there are libraries.

For the sake of a few pounds each year, there will not be libraries”

So please be part of the fight to save our libraries!

The legend ‘Knowledge is Power’ above the entrance to the former Pillgwenlly Library in Newport, inspiration for the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Libraries Gave Us Power’

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