Access for all - Why libraries matter

By Virginia Moffatt
March 29, 2016

The BBC are reporting today (29 March 2016) that since 2010, 25 per cent of libraries have closed, including 132 mobile libraries, 207 building based and four delivery services.  A further 111 closures are planned this year. No wonder children's author, Alan Gibbons, said the public library service 'faced the greatest crisis in its history'.

The figures are shocking, but what I find even more shocking is that Kate Andrews, news editor of the Institute of Economic Affairs, was today suggesting on the radio and on twitter (as @KateAndrs) that libraries needed reform and are uneconomic. One of her arguments appeared to be that libraries are less necessary in the modern world because of the internet. Of course she is right, that there is vastly more information available to us on our computer screens, but perhaps she hasn't noticed that libraries provide this service too? This is not just  about the most efficient way to gather information, it is how we gain knowledge, as individuals and communities.

There were some on Ms Andrews timeline who were arguing that young people don't read physical books anymore, so the book is dead, and libraries will become unnecessary. It is true that the internet is easily accessible to many, particularly if you have broadband, and enough money for a computer. However a 2014 You Gov poll suggests that this doesn't stop libraries being popular, with 51 per cent owning a library card, 34 per cent having visited in the previous six months and 47 per cent in the previous year. Furthermore, all the evidence is pointing to the fact that e-book sales have peaked and print versions are more popular than ever. It's not an either/or with libraries and the internet, it's both.

Furthermore,  libraries offer a vital community function. Popping into my local library the other day, I observed the following: a mother and toddler group engaged in a sing song, several retired people browsing the shelves, a number of others sitting in the research section, a noticeboard advertising local events, friendly knowledgeable librarians eager to help with my queries. I don't know about you, but I can't get any of that from the internet. I also know from my time in local government that our libraries offered many sessions to isolated groups such as older people, people with learning diffficulties, disabled people, unemployed people, minority ethnic groups, young carers and many more. 

In addition, libraries provide internet access for the 14 per cent of the population who do not have it (many of whom are poor); they offer free books for families who can't afford to buy them. They are about so much more than borrowing books and, contrary to Ms Andrews' assertions that they are only for the middle classes,  they reach out to people who might not otherwise have access  to reading. Of course, middle class people benefit too, but why should that be a problem? Isn't our society richer and more inclusive when people of all walks of life rub shoulders together?

As the author Jeanette Winterson powerfully describes in her autobiography 'Why Be Happy When You  Could Be Normal?', being a member of her local library transformed her life. Since her mother was opposed to reading  (even to the point of burning the books Winterson bought in secret), the writer educated herself at Accrington Library.  Without access to that library, it is doubtful whether she'd have managed to gain a place at Oxford, and one of our greatest living writers might never have written a word. No wonder she made this passionate argument in favour of libraries in 2012,  stating more recently  'libraries are doing more education work than ever. Libraries and literacy cannot be separated.'

Ms Andrews  also noted in a reply to a tweet that library cuts are one quarter of the proposed PIP cuts (the implication being that they mattered less). Of course, she is right to note that people claiming sickness and disability benefits have been badly hit by austerity. But again, this is not an either/or situation. Both sets of cuts  harm, and since people on low incomes will be adversely affected by library closures, they receive a double whammy of reduced income and fewer community resources. 

As with so many of the pro-austerity arguments, the problem isn't can we afford libraries? It is, what happens when we lose them? And can we afford to lose anymore?

Libraries are vital to the lifeblood of our local areas, our villages, towns and cities. They provide safe public spaces, that bring a diverse range of people together and enable them to connect over a thirst for knowledge and a passion for books. Without them, our communities are greatly impoverished, which is why we should fight tooth and nail to save every single one.

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©Virginia Moffatt is Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.