You may have seen the kerfuffle earlier this week when Leader of Walsall Council suggested that, as their libraries have been closed due to Covid this year, there was little need to reopen them. “I’m a firm believer that if we haven’t used something for the past four or five months, do we really need it?” he said, presumably standing next to his Christmas tree, unused for 11 months. (I know, Christmas trees aren’t essential but really.)
There is no real need to tell you which party he stands for.
Debates around libraries, and this one raged on Twitter for a while, often centre around making books and educational opportunities available for working class children who may not be able to afford them otherwise. One tweeter suggested that this was ridiculous, as working class children just don’t use them.
They may be right. Maybe they don’t. Not en masse. But read Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me, or Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn, and we know that some of them do. Read Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me and you see that it’s not that they aren’t interested in words, reading or writing, but that they may just a need little help. Read Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why and you find a boy rescued by words.
But does this matter? These days any discussion about our public services is only about how to reach and support the poorest in society and yes, I have no problem with that. But libraries are a universal service. They are not just there for the poor, they are for all of us. And just because a child is born into the middle classes doesn’t mean they don’t need libraries either.
This year, above all others has shown us how important public spaces are, for all of us, a space where we can just be, safe and free with our thoughts for a while without being sold something or moved on. Just 8% of Britain is accessible for everyone – why do you think everyone piled to the beach as soon as they were allowed to go anywhere? But on a daily basis, parks, open spaces and yes libraries are part of that public space.
Libraries are for the lost. For the friendless, the confused and the ones searching for an identity. My friend LD Lapinski write this amazing story about finding identity with the help of a library. In my first job as a bookseller, we had to refuse to serve a confused boy who had ordered some gentle, enquiring books about homosexuality because his father had ordered us not to sell him anything. Libraries were there for him when the private sector couldn’t help him.
This year a lot of people who thought they were comfortable found that they were just one furloughed period from trouble. The distinction between haves and have nots has altered, and families found themselves worrying about how to manage when they never needed to before. Libraries are there – for help and advice and to provide a world to escape to, like I did on my way home from school.