For the love of libraries.

When was the last time you went to your library?

I say your library as there are many different kinds: Academic, Public, Private and Workplace. You will have access to a library somewhere – when was the last time you went?

I talk a lot on this blog about writing and reading and how important they can be, so let’s talk about the spaces that I was first able to explore that, the places that let my writing happen and my reading flourish.

Let’s talk about: The Library.

I recently saw someone on my Twitter feed talk about the reduction in school libraries and libraries in general – did you know that some schools don’t even have libraries at all?

This really shocks me. Every time I’ve heard someone say that they never had a library in their school, or been to a public library before it takes me a second to step back and absorb that information, for me, it was part of my right to free education outside of a classroom, as valuable as school, the dentist or the doctors. It’s been hard for me to imagine a life without libraries.

But we have Google and Wikipedia and the Internet at our fingertips!

I hear this a lot.

In a world of free speech, trolling, hacking, instant posts, sharing and fake news, can we really rely on everything that we see on the internet? The short answer is no.

The internet is flooded with information and that includes the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the trusted and untrusted, the free and paid-for content. The internet can be manipulated, it’s not confined by any authority. You can gain a lot of knowledge from the internet but it’s far from a 100% safe, trusted source. You need to have the skills to be able to properly research on the internet to learn what is valuable to you and what isn’t. You also need access, the internet isn’t free, you need physical access to it, you need accounts, a device, a connection etc.

So, are libraries still relevant?

You know who provides access to get online and teaches how to research safely? The library. Librarians and other library professionals are qualified experts in finding information and researching, they trained to do this.

I work in an academic library, I see the struggles that our library and librarians face daily, but also I’m seeing a change in how it’s used and how our customers feel about the space. I don’t think it’s just limited to academic libraries, all libraries are facing a change in attitude towards them and I don’t think we as a society are really ready for it.

Public libraries are being squeezed out of our neighbourhoods also, getting less budget and therefore less paid staff, meaning that the libraries that are left are open less and can only offer limited services with a heavy reliance on volunteers. It’s only due to committed members of the community that a lot of public libraries are still functioning.

I’d like to share why this matters from my experience and why it should matter to everyone that we need to talk about our libraries, more than that, we need to involve ourselves in libraries and library services, we need to keep them relevant and available to all.

You can find many articles about libraries being shut down, usage declining and the ‘re-imaginings’ of modern libraries so I’m not going to quote statistics and generalised information here, I want to talk about my individual experience and observations.
I’ve been a student, a member of staff, a graduate and an everyday member of the public when it comes to using libraries of all kinds and I think those without access to a library aren’t aware of what they’re missing out on.

What are we missing?

1. A library is a rite of passage.

My first memory of using a library was as quite a young child, I don’t remember exactly what age. My parents had books but they were things like cookbooks, DIY guides and encyclopaedias, often handed down, fiction rarely made an appearance on our home bookshelf. I knew that my parents didn’t read for fun, it just wasn’t their thing, whether they didn’t enjoy it, have time for it, or we just couldn’t afford to buy books, my parents weren’t readers.

So, when it became obvious from school reports and my own childhood interest in my nan’s romance novels that I had an urge to read, my mom took me to the local library to get my very own library card. I remember listening really carefully to the librarian telling me and my mom the rules, how many books we could take, how long I could have them for, how to look after them (I got my first ‘big’ backpack for the books in case it rained) and what would happen if I didn’t follow these rules. I felt like I was a trusted member of the library, this was a community room I now had access to.

This very first impression of our library gave me these things:

  • Confidence
    I felt grown-up and trusted to use the library, I felt I had earned that moment and I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and show them my library card, my mom got me a little purse to keep it in, my very first card.
  • Curiosity
    I now had to look at what was on offer, decide what I wanted to read and when. I looked around at all the different sections and told myself that I’d check something out from each one eventually.
  • Responsibility
    I had to look after each item I borrowed and remember when they were due back, I asked my dad for some paper to write it all down, to plan my visits and due dates, he bought me a notebook eventually.
  • Respect
    My name and my details were attached to an account, I had access to all these books but I had to respect the library rules or else I would be fined! I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen, this place was part of my town and I wanted to keep going there and finding out more.

That was just from one trip. That very first memory of the library gave me four valuable things, each what I feel was an integral part of growing up.

2. A library is a safe space.

Whatever you define yourself as, whatever others define you as, whether you are rich or poor you are welcome in a public library. Can you say that about many places?
Even private libraries have visiting options, discounts and ‘Open Days’, academic libraries welcome any member of their institution, usually ‘outsiders’ too if they can be accommodated, libraries try their best to be welcoming to all.

You don’t have to have to spend a single penny to walk into a public library.

Are there many places you’d go to alone? Let your children go to? Leave your elderly relatives? Meet strangers? Talk to strangers?

The world sometimes feels like a scary place and we often stick to our own homes and routines because it’s comfortable, it’s where we feel safe, but if someone says they’re going to the Library, it naturally feels less of a scary option. Why?

I remember my parents telling me that I should always go to the library if I felt unsafe, got lost or needed help.

This was for many reasons I think, but a couple of them were that the library was always staffed, open to anyone, there was no alcohol or immediate dangers, it was a place for the community so I’d probably see someone I knew, the staff were trusted and known and worst case, they had my account details, they knew me.
(Also, where I grew up, public toilets were non-existent, so your library was helpful there too.)

3. A library is for all

It’s about communities. Libraries are for the community, they help us get to know each other, help each other, learn about each other and start to ask questions. It’s one of the few ‘safe’ spaces for us all to come together. Libraries hold more than just books, they give a place for performers and artists, young and old, and they offer guidance to anyone looking for it.

Did you know that a lot of community support groups use library spaces for free?
Where would they go if there was no library?

When I rented my first place after University, I was trying to budget carefully until I’d got my head around all the different bills that were coming in every month, this meant I didn’t have an internet connection straight away, and even after picking a provider, I still had to wait for installation and switch-on. I also didn’t want to burn through my phone’s data plan either. The local library gave me a place to keep in touch with my family on social media, talk to friends, job hunt and check my emails, ensuring that all my accounts and finances were on track, but also, it gave me a great introduction to some local people. I asked about the best takeout places and shops because quite frankly, it was all new to me and I was nervous feeling like an outsider to that community. I wasn’t alone in that library, I saw parents, kids, other people job hunting and someone having some help with basic I.T. I loaned a couple of books that day and went home feeling less alone and more at home. I see it with the students that come to our library too, it’s a meeting place, a teaching space and somewhere they can feel safe and ask for help, even for non-library matters.

Now as a writer, I engage whenever I can with my local writing community and literature events and again, you will see these held within museums, galleries and libraries. They survive because people want and need them, they are precious places to so many. They need our attention.

My fear is that the things that make a library a safe and supportive place will vanish due to lack of funding and lack of awareness. The people that truly need and rely on these spaces will suffer and we will truly lose something special, things you don’t find anywhere else. You might even find something there you didn’t know you’d appreciate until it’s gone.

The library has always been a part of my life.
I don’t want libraries to disappear.

For the love of libraries, please do what you can to support yours.

*Edit – I found this blogger’s [Reading Through Infinity] post on The Five Best UK Libraries – Check it out and share your recommendations in the comments.

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