So, why do libraries matter? To understand, we invite you to see them for what they are rather than relying on others’ preconceptions, and to ignore the weasel words of those who claim they are outdated, worthless or too expensive for our present times. Because libraries aren’t simply a place to borrow books or read newspapers – they support and underpin a wealth of other services and activities. In the same way that every department of a university, or a law firm, or a health service is supported by its library, every aspect of civic society is underpinned by the public library service.
Does learning matter? Because libraries play a major and sometimes under-acknowledged role in education and training, by stimulating kids’ imaginations and offering them something that’s personal to them, by helping parents feed a pre-school child’s voracious appetite for picture books, by showing secondary pupils how to look things up and cite references, by supporting part-time and lifelong learners, by helping people boost their employability, by promoting evening classes or by teaching essential IT and computer skills. People home-schooling children, teachers planning lessons and tutors assisting youngsters with additional learning support all rely on the library. Children might go to expensive private schools or to the local comprehensive but chances are they all still use the library. Any society that values education, and by extension its own future prosperity, must therefore value a well-funded public library service.
Does health and social care matter? Because libraries contribute to these important areas by providing people with information, hard facts, inspiration and onward contacts to see them through whatever challenges they are facing. Does business and prosperity matter? Libraries promote enterprise with information for entrepreneurs and a key role to play in helping people learn skills to set up businesses. Do the arts matter? The role of libraries in hosting arts events, running workshops, providing space for exhibitions, serving local groups, publicising productions, providing inspiration and putting like-minded people in touch with each other can hardly be exaggerated. We challenge you to name a more efficient way of doing all this, or any way in which the private sector is better-equipped to step in and do it instead. It isn’t.
This is why libraries are absolutely not a drain on society and its resources, a luxury we can no longer afford or, most pernicious and inaccurate of all, a middle-class indulgence. Does community cohesion matter? Because libraries are, in the real world, a central pillar of this important quality that we all depend on, directly or indirectly – a marvellously efficient way for local authorities and sometimes even central government to work towards targets and objectives in many different areas of their remits. They are also generally staffed by friendly and highly-trained people who will probably offer some of the best customer service you will meet all day, usually in a convenient town-centre location. Libraries, their buildings and their staff, are fantastic assets that any local authority worth its salt should be finding ways to maximise and expose as many people to as they possibly can. Not closing them or limiting their hours which is short-sighted and extremely counter-productive.
It’s a fact that libraries can’t win in the eyes of some. Either they are hopelessly fusty and old-fashioned, or everything they offer can be accessed online these days and they are destined to close, at least in a physical sense. But this is such a false dichotomy. In countering the old-fashioned label, we might observe that public libraries have embraced new technologies with a passion and will offer you ebooks to access from home, subscriptions to high-quality reference services, online catalogues and the ability to keep track of what you have borrowed from your computer, a remote enquiry service to answer your questions and IT training that can help you approach computers and the internet yourself with confidence. You can probably keep up with what they do on your favourite social media site.
But equally anyone who has tried to find quality information online has also found themselves deeply frustrated at how hard it can be. How do you know what’s reliable and what’s rubbish? How do you phrase your search query or figure out how to make all the additional options on a search engine’s advanced tab actually work? What if the resource you want simply can’t be accessed via someone’s website, at least without paying a lot of money for the privilege? Sometimes all you want is to ask for help. Well, here’s a tip: librarians are past masters at finding things out. They have amazing search superpowers – including making inroads into the ‘deep web‘ or the bits Google simply can’t index. There’s rather a lot of that, with the stuff that’s easy to access only the tip of a gigantic iceberg. And they love sharing their expertise with you. These skilled and friendly people are there to help you, for free, and they will enjoy doing it. What the hell is not to like?
All this is great news. However, it’s important to appreciate how the value of libraries lies as much in creating public space and building communities as it does in lending books, providing information and promoting services. Think about your local high street or town centre and you might notice a few things about it. You might find it very unwelcoming if you are older, if your mobility is impaired, or with a pram or young children in tow. Also, more and more places require you to pay a fee, or at least spend money, before you are welcome and that can be so demoralising if you’ve no cash to spend. That’s certainly the case in the plush coffee shops and cosy bookshops that take much of their design inspiration from the memories of libraries we recall with affection from our own younger days. Some town centres even use private security guards to co-opt public space and keep ‘undesirable people’ (whoever they might be) at arms’ length from shopping centres. Wearing the wrong thing? Taking a photo? The rules are a long way from being consistent, fair or transparent in these situation.
In a library, you are welcome regardless of who you are. And you are equally welcome to come through the door for whatever reason brings you there. The library and its staff do not have an agenda in welcoming you in. You can bring your own and do whatever you need to further it. Most of the other places you will visit in towns these days are quite the opposite. They wish you to share the agenda they set. Which would you prefer to do?
In the library you will meet people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, philosophies and walks of life and mix with them on equal terms. By doing this we sometimes learn quite an important lesson. We find that the people we have avoided, because they are different from us, are really not so different after all. We learn about the things we have in common rather than the things we imagine divide us. We encounter our neighbours on neutral territory – something that becomes harder and harder to do in an increasingly commercialised world. And, by so doing, we build healthy, functioning communities where people can lead the sort of lives that make them happy and fulfilled, and thus inclined to contribute to making those communities even better places to live.
Libraries matter because people matter. For themselves, not for their spending power, or their ability to absorb and act on marketing messages. They matter because life is endlessly surprising, and we never know what might be coming next, or what we will need to know in order to deal with it. Libraries are the gateways to the world’s knowledge and culture, they matter because communities matter, and because our similarities are so much more important than our differences. We believe this unashamedly and we are not going to apologise for it.
And that is why people all round the country are fighting their closure tooth and nail. And increasingly they are winning. Because libraries matter.