“Suicides, literacy and Space Hoppers”, Politics article 13/6/11

 

The man at the counter said he would commit suicide if they closed the library. He was a normal man, not obviously prone to making such extreme statements and not even a borrower whom I recognised. One assumes he has been quietly taking books out regularly for years, that he had few relatives or friends and that the few words he shared with staff each visit reassured him that he still existed.

Other people have come up to me after being made aware of the unprecedented level of cuts and closures and have said “I don’t know what I’d do without the library”. This phrase is the second most common one we hear these days, after the worried whisper of “This library is safe, isn’t it”?

The people asking this question are of all types, ages, background, income and gender. They are people who come in to do their CVs because they are part of the one-third of households without the internet or who, now in straitened times, cannot easily afford printer ink. They are small, bright-eyed children, for whom the library is an exciting adventure and for whom their membership card is their most prized possession. The 400 school kids who, off their own bat, joined the Space Hop summer reading challenge last year, by coming in and asking. They are ladies who use our books as a free escape from their lives. They are retired businessmen who read the Financial Times upstairs each day or the mother who sings along at the weekly rhyme-times. They are the father who knows that the sheer number of picture-books his children demand would be impossible to afford via the near-monopoly that is Amazon or by a long trip to the nearest threatened bookshop. They can be the person who is unable to find the answer via the internet or by a council helpline and knows that the librarian will be helpful and expert enough to get it for him or her.

So, it comes as a shock to hear from the media that libraries are no longer relevant. That protecting one’s local library is an act of selfishness in straitened times. That libraries are middle class institutions. That they are relics of older, wealthier times and that people are only protecting them now because they like the idea of them. That a job which took me two degrees to train for and nearly two decades of experience can be done equally as well by anyone retired or who fancies having a go.

It angers me so much that after doing a full-time job at the library, I come home and spend three or four hours each night producing a bulletin at Public Libraries News. It describes which council is cutting what, or which quiet country town has had a mass protest against a closure. It documents the many different ways that libraries are being belittled and championed, closed and saved.

The truth is that people are not marching through country towns or forming a human chain around a library just to feel good about themselves. They know how they and others depend on the service. They know libraries are changing with the times, investing in ebooks, wifi and computers just as they still provide for the vast majority that use printed books or who want a quiet place to study or read. The UK Digital Champion has gone on record as saying they “have a vital role to play in supporting the ambition to secure a truly networked nation in the UK”. They realise, in a way that many in power do not, that providing such a simple thing as free access to books is a massive boost to literacy when three in ten children do not own a book.

They realise that libraries should not be shelved.

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