Reasons for libraries: Equality

Life is unequal because prices and incomes are unequal.  Public libraries partially came about because it was recognised that this inequality meant that some people who most needed books were being denied them.  This was not an altruistic act on the part of the Victorians and later generations.  Rather, it was an enlightened realisation that the country would benefit if all could have access to the immense educational, democratic and social welfare advantages of the book and the newspaper.  Children of even the very poor could, with the help of their local public library, learn all that even the most privileged child could and thus go on to great things, providing a meritocracy of great economic benefit to the nation.  Similarly, working people would have a positive outlet for their energies and could learn what they needed to learn, regardless of their financial resources. They could then go on to better things, again to the nation’s benefit.  Finally, the elderly could have access to the universe of knowledge and fiction, which would be of immense benefit to their social welfare.

Although times have changed, many would argue that public libraries still serve these purposes, as the quotes and facts below show:

“Libraries are not an indulgence. They can have a transformative power – especially for those marginalized, disenfranchised, alone, or simply open a world of stories and imagination to readers young and old.” Sharon Canavar, Chief Executive, Harrogate International Festivals.

“I used to work at both Moredon and North Swindon libraries a few years ago and you are all absolutely correct saying that the issue is the fault of the parents.  We used to have kids of 6 years old waiting outside the library before it opened to come in because their parents had kicked them out onto the streets and forbidden them to go back home until the evening! I walked one small child home one winter night as they were out alone and nobody cared where they were, which just broke my heart.   There was a notorious local teenager who was always hassling the staff, swearing and causing trouble but as I was only a few years older than I managed to talk to him and encourage better behaviour, and after a while he would come by to help out and even ran a stall at one of the fun days we held there.” “KM1981″ Swindon.

  • A significant proportion of the population (23% according to national statistics) does not have an internet connection at home.  Those people most in need are precisely those without an ebook or the internet e.g. unemployed, those on low incomes, senior citizen. Libraries offer online and access for all, often free.  The United Nations has declared that internet access is a human right - public libraries uphold that right. In addition, using the internet means one can take advantage of special offers (e.g. comparison websites) meaning that by not allowing libraries and thus free internet access, the poor are being forced to pay more while the wealthier can pay less.

“If people can’t get to a library, or they’re put off by how they’re taught, they won’t make the step to using digital services”.  Bevan Foundation .  One third of households in Wales may not have easy online access and thus will miss out on online-only government services.

  • For all but the very wealthy, public libraries are great value for money – “In under 2 years if we had bought all the books we borrowed from the library we would have spent an estimated £3400, this works out roughly as a book habit of £150 a month, definitely not something we could afford.Our young son is the biggest user of the library in terms of number of books he borrow. I think having such a wealth and variety of books is a huge benefit in terms of his development, use of imagination, his language skills etc. Not something you can add a value to.”

“I am a senior citizen without independent transport, living In Leominster. I use the local library regularly borrowing 4-5 books on each visit. I also belong to a book club for seniors and we obtain our books from Leominster library. Many of my neighbours have books delivered as they are unavble to get out. Om every visit I see that the computers are all being well used by both young and old. Pensioners use the library to read the newspapers as the rising cost of a daily newspaper and delivery is prohibitive.The library also regularly houses exhibitions of local interest giving a showcase that would otherwise be unavailable. Thursday mornings see the mother and toddler group and local junior schools bring the children in to encourage their literacy skills. It would be a serious loss to the town in so many ways and to me perconally, as reading is one of my main hobbies and I cannot afford to buy books all the time.”  Comment on Save Herefordshire Libraries petition.

  • During times of recession, libraries are a great way of saving money  by meaning one can take out DVDs/Games cheaper, read newspapers, use wifi, internet, free community space.
  • Similarly, libraries offer word-processing, printing, photocopying and fax.
  • Many people on low incomes or mental health problems use the library as there is nowhere else to go.  Ironically, this is sometimes used informally as a reason against public libraries while others argue against libraries as being too Middle Class.

“The mental health facility side of the library can, and does, make it a stressful place to work. Dealing with people who can range from barking mad to compulsive to chronically angry takes its toll. So if you thought working in a library was a cushy job centred around satisfying the needs of quiet, amiable bibliophiles, think again; on some days, and in some ways, working in a library is more akin to manning the reception desk at a psychiatric outpatient clinic. Of all the reasons we praise and build libraries, their function as a pressure relief valve for the psychologically damaged and frustrated is probably the least acknowledged. Without a library many people would be sinking further into depression, boredom, and fear, and others would be further away from understanding or alleviating their psychological problems.” Jettison Coccoon.

“Morris Cohen, aged 90, spoke in favour of Neasden Library. He said: “Elderly people use it as a home not just a library.”Neasden used to be a no-go area but the library has been a positive influence, it will deteriorate if you close it.” (Harrow Observer)

“I have just moved into the county and I do not want to live in a county without libraries” Comment on Herefordshire Libraries Petition

  • The library is often the only place where the user can talk to others. This goes directly against the stereotype of public libraries as quiet places.  One user of the library where the author works has said that he would kill himself if the library closed down as there would be nothing else for him to do and no-one else he could talk to.

“But principally they are about people. People with a curiosity about life and the world around them. People who want to learn or escape into literary fantasy, people who like to meet. People who fall in love. To hack away at anything which is principally about people always seems especially harsh and counter-productive to me.” (Anne Pickles, News & Star)

  • Libraries as community centres – As the use of libraries change, their importance as community centres becomes more important.  See this article listing the ways.
  • Cuts to libraries disproportionally affect those who cannot afford to travel.  If the local library closes, then the wealthier can travel to one that is still open.  However the poorest cannot afford to go.

“The sick or elderly cannot make multiple trips to order and collect books or cannot travel out of the area to use another library.” (Mancunian Matters).

  • Libraries are a free community space otherwise rare on the High Street.  This is especially the case in small communities where, unfortunately, they are currently most under threat of closure.  A 2010 article Public libraries as impartial spaces in a consumer society: possible, plausible, desirable? (New Library World) discusses this point comprehensively.
  • Disabilities – Those with visual impairments gain a lot from reading and libraries are invaluable in providing their reading  material, especially as they are likely to depend more on reading than others.  See Assessing the Impact of reading for Blind and Partially Sighted Adults (Reading Agency 2012).

    “The government and the council forget that people live in places like Walney. When they close the post offices, the clubs and the libraries, then the local people lose meeting places.” (Sally Whittaker, 97 years old, Cumbria).

    “Libraries hold a strong position within their local communities especially amongst their regular patrons. They are physical places to visit, providing interaction with others in the community and resources for learning or creating, this tangibility gives them an advantage over purely online environments … The challenge for libraries is to effectively merge and leverage the position of people, place and technology interactions to provide meaning for community, relevance for technology and meaning in peoples’ lives. They are safe and trusted environments for a wide range of community members … By providing local places, local information and local community they have the potential to be catalysts for local knowledge and technology growth within a digital society. The medium for knowledge collection has evolved, but the role of libraries as repositories of community knowledge (Church 2009) is still as relevant as 6000 years ago” Continuing relevance of the library as a third place for users and non-users of IT: the case of Canada Bay - Australian Library Journal, 2013.

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