Tag Archives: libraries

Do we really need… Libraries

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.)

Uh-huh.

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.

National Libraries Day

It’s late, I know. My blogging has fallen off in recent weeks ¬†and I can only blame the day job workload and a stinking cold. But a quick few words because it’s National Libraries Day.

My first library was a bus. A mobile library that came to the close where I lived. I on’t remember it well, though it may have been an odd blue colour and I do remember wondering how the books stayed on the shelves, as you do.

But then they built a new library, brand spanking new, down the road from my house. I went to the opening with my mum, got out loads of books and refused to talk to local radio about how glad I was that the library was there.

From that day I went a lot. After school, on Saturday mornings while my dad watched Football Focus, after school again, after school and Saturday mornings. For years. I must have read so many books there. I remember one, a YA dystopian fable called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier, I forget what it was about except that I was hooked and I got so cross at my dad who laughed at the title, thinking it wasn’t tackling enormous issues of life-threatening import. I remember being the latest in a long line of teenage girls asking for their copy of Forever by Judy Blume, just as the librarians had taken it out the back to try and mend its crumbling spine and loose pages from so much reading and re-reading.

My school had a library too. More books to read. And then there were university libraries. I found them impossible to study in, instead always looking around, taking in the titles and the grafitti on the tables. Photocopy and borrow the books to read elsewhere, that was my strategy. This is as true today as it was then – I can’t work well in libraries. When I was studying for my post-graduate diploma I had a visitor’s pass to Nottingham Trent University’s library. They only let you have access for a few days per year; you were essentially a non-paying student using their resources, and you couldn’t borrow anything. I had to get my research done in those few days. It was incredibly difficult and I only managed it by constantly playing The cave Singers two albums over and over again on my ipod.

Nowadays my library visits are mainly with my daughter who, at three, is already a big fan of the library. It was one of the first places to make us feel welcome as a mother and daughter combo, offering tots time singing sessions and signing her up for a library card before she was six months old.

I am incredibly lucky in living somewhere that the local Council recognises the importance of libraries, has been funding them and is working hard to improve literacy rates in children. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone realises what they are losing. Fight to keep them. They are a lifeline to so many.

The joy of libraries

It’s National Libraries Day! Here are some reasons I love them:

  • They’re one of the last places you can spend time where you aren’t being sold something. Every time I read an article talking about how libraries can diversify their income in tough times by putting in a coffee shop a small part of me dies. If I want coffee I’ll go to a coffee shop. In these commercialised times, where everything is judged by its monetary value, I believe our wellbeing as a nation comes down to our access to libraries and parks. Both of them free to all, funded by all (of us that pay our taxes), they ask nothing of us but give us so much.
  • They’re full of books! (An obvious one perhaps, but if you were like me as a child and devoured books, libraries were a godsend. My parents couldn’t and wouldn’t buy as many books as I could read in a week so a regular Saturday trip to the library was essential. Our library was just down the road from our house, and before it opened we had a mobile library in a van come round. Where else would I have discovered so many friends? Where else could I, like every other girl in the village, read Forever by Judy Blume? (the library’s copy was so old and thumbed through that they were always trying to mend it. No sooner had they put it out the back to get busy with sellotape then someone else asked for it.) Even now, when I have shelves full of books at home, I can easily just “happen” into the library and come out with five or six books I want to read.
  • Some of them are housed in beautiful buildings – the new Birmingham library is pretty stunning outside and in, ¬†Manchester’s newly refurbished Central library is a glorious old building with a beautiful domed reading room and in Nottingham, Bromley House library is one of the hidden gems of the city. And those are just the ones I see on a vaguely regular basis. There are many more famous ones that are equally lovely. And anyone can go in them and have a look at the architecture!
  • I have some fond memories of libraries – not just my Saturday mornings, but also walking around the university library with my dad when we toured the campuses before I went off to uni. At Sussex we got lost in the silent section and got the giggles when we were glared at by someone working.

And that’s it. I know there’s all kinds of other things – the events, exhibitions, information at your fingertips, computer access and so on and so forth. But those are my reasons.

Long may they reign.

Happy National Libraries day!