THE FREEDOM OF A LIBRARY

2

by Rowan Whiteside

All across the country, libraries are being closed. This has been happening for years: quiet reservoirs of knowledge and fantasy disappearing from villages, towns, cities. Since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, library funding has dropped by 16% and we have 549 fewer libraries.

It is difficult to really assess the impact of this. We know that visits to libraries have dropped by almost 14%, but we don’t know how many lives have been changed, how many jobs have been lost, how many children can no longer borrow something new to read. 549 libraries is an abstract figure. It sounds like a lot (because it is), but it doesn’t actually show what has been taken away. And what has been stolen is so much more than statistics can show.

What has been lost is a free place that welcomes everybody; regardless of income or education or ethnicity or age. What has been lost is a location that offers endless books, access to computers and the internet, a friendly face, a warm place to sit, today’s newspaper, a puzzle to do, a new CD to enjoy…

every time a library is closed, a refuge is stolen away from someone who needs it the most.

As Benjamin Johncock, author of The Last Pilot, says “the public library is so much more than the sum of its books: it’s a community hub, a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. The library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm.”

And every time a library is closed, a refuge is stolen away from someone who needs it the most. Because the people who use the library are not the people who are responsible for closing them down – if they did use the library they wouldn’t consider closing them.

( No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action © Rowan Whiteside )

( No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action © Rowan Whiteside )

(This is not a slur on councils around the country. They have been handed extreme budget after budget, and have been left with very little choice. Back in 2014 Norfolk County Council issued a statement describing their funding outlook as “grim”, and since then things have only gotten worse. Councils are struggling to keep basic services running, and if it seems that care funding should be slashed or libraries, what are they to do?)

Libraries are not there for the wealthy. The rich can use them, of course — remember, libraries are open to everyone — but it’s those who don’t have the money to buy new books, or DVDS, or computer games, or CDs, who do use them. To take away libraries is to strike another blow on the possibility of social mobility, and on social cohesion.

Studies show that adults living in the most deprived areas and adults from BAME groups visit the library more. More adults outside of employment use the library than those in work. Libraries are essential, especially for those with less financial resource.

To quote Patrick Barkham, author of Coastlines, “Libraryness – it’s a unique quality, only possessed by our libraries: the alchemy of a free place where people of all ages and all classes come together, seeking the adventures, discoveries, solace and sheer joy found in books. We must keep them open and cherish them, for they nourish us.”

( No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action © Katy Jon Went )

( No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action © Katy Jon Went )

Speak to any writer and I can almost guarantee they’ll credit libraries as a crucial component in their life and journey to becoming an author. If more libraries close, how many future writers will we lose? How many readers will stutter and flounder? (It’s important to note here that the UK was recently ranked near the bottom in the OECD’s survey of literacy levels in the world’s most developed countries.)

“What a sad adolescence I would have had without a library to escape to! And what a very different life since then: the library opened the door to my future.” – Andrew Cowan (Worthless Men, Pig)

“Children who grow up with access to a library grow up with the understanding that access to knowledge is a right, and this gives them power. Books allow people to dream. I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to a library throughout my life. Had this not been the case, I would be an entirely different person.”- Megan Bradbury (Everyone is Watching, June 2016)

Libraries are essential for a vibrant literary ecology, and they are crucial for an inclusive, welcoming society. To further cut funds and close libraries would be a sin against both.

Libraries are not just important for inspiring writing careers, or for providing a free office space; they provide a crucial income to writers. By registering for PLR, writers receive 6.2 pence per book loan (as of 2013/14), and will receive a cheque of their earnings every year. Capped at £6,600, these payments give writers of all genres an extra income in a time of ever-falling author incomes and advances. That’s why (most) writers will never be upset to hear you have borrowed their books from your library service. Libraries not only help writers begin their careers, but help maintain them too.

Libraries are essential for a vibrant literary ecology, and they are crucial for an inclusive, welcoming society. To further cut funds and close libraries would be a sin against both.

( No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action © Rowan Whiteside )

( No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action © Rowan Whiteside )

David Cameron himself said, in a letter dating from September 2015, that he “was disappointed at the long list of suggestions floated in the briefing note to make significant cuts to frontline services – from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums.” Somewhat ironic, as his government’s slashing of local authority budgets is directly responsible for council cuts to libraries. (His local council replied as such.)

Not only are library closures inciting Cameron’s somewhat lacklustre ire, but they are breaking the law. CILIP’s My Library By Right campaign aims to draw attention to exactly that: the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act requires that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Ed Vaizey), satisfies their legal duty for the stewardship and improvement of public libraries in England, and ensures local authorities fulfil their obligation to provide “comprehensive and efficient” library services.  There has been much talk of Britain returning to the Victorian era (in terms of poverty, inequality, housing crises, etc…), but back in 1850*, free libraries became an enforced right with the first Public Library Act. In fact, we’re regressing.

Again, a library is a free space: free in monetary terms, free in terms of access to resources, and freeing. In the age of increasingly censored and biased internet searches and resources, the library is truly democratic. It is not arranged according to algorithms – books are not ranked by popularity, or by sponsorship. A library does not censor results, or recommend one book above another. (Unless you ask a librarian, of course.) What it does is offer a choice; a way for the user to make their own discoveries – you find the shelf, and pull off some titles, and then you take the time to find out exactly what you need to know, and some other things beside.

a library is a free space: free in monetary terms, free in terms of access to resources, and freeing

When I say freeing, I mean that a library allows dreams to flourish. In a library people can learn how to set up businesses, find a home, apply for jobs, learn to cook, to garden, to paint, to play whist. They can read books that take them to different countries and different worlds. In a library, people can escape from the lives they live and dream of a new one.

We need to save our libraries to save our culture and save our society. A country without libraries is a sad place, a lost place, a dull place. And if we don’t act soon, it will be too late.

‘Free public libraries are one of the traditional guarantors of freedom, places where anyone may start to explore all that humanity has thought and recorded in words. The burning of books and libraries is one of the great barbaric acts: the closing down of libraries is a step towards the same barbarism.’ – George Szirtes (Bad Machine, The Burning of the Books)

(No Cuts to Norfolk Library Services Action – Video by Alex-Hort Francis)

Practical Things You Can Do to Help Your Library

  • If you’re not already a member of your local library, please join post-haste.
  • Make a friend join the library. They’ll thank you, I promise.
  • Borrow the books. And borrow lots – max out your card.
  • Sign the My Library By Right petition.
  • Take your books back late: late fees almost always go straight into the library funding pot. Same for when you pay to borrow CD’s or DVD’s.
  • Write to your MP. Or to Ed Vaizey. Or even to our Prime Minster, the venerable Mr Cameron.
  • Ask your library for a feedback form and write how brilliant it is.

*Norwich was also the first municipality to adopt the 1850 Public Library Act.

All of the author quotes in this piece were from the Writers’ Centre Norwich #LibraryAdvent Project. They are currently running a series of blogs under the title ‘Love Your Library’.

Featured image © Katy Jon Went

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