While idly browsing through my Twitter feed this evening, I came across this:
Tell the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that fewer public libraries will contribute to Child Poverty: they’re asking. http://t.co/27BAnwrkM5
— Ian Anstice (@publiclibnews) February 26, 2014
It got me thinking about the value of public libraries for young readers and the disastrous consequences closures/service reductions could bring. It also got me reflecting on why I chose to work in libraries in the first place. It may be quite a personal story but, given the circumstances, I think it really highlights the importance of public libraries, including the chance for escape and the opportunities they offer young people.
My family never had that much spare money when I was growing up, despite both my mother and stepfather working. Both worked in a takeaway and, because all other immediate family members were also working there and cheap/free childcare was (as it still is) practically non-existent, I was there with them six nights a week. I’m sad to say that the novelty of free chips runs thin after a couple of weeks, and it was often quite a lonely experience (despite my best efforts to help out, nobody really wants their chow mein put together by an eight year old).
Those best nights were the ones when Ammanford Public Library opened slightly later and I could spend some time browsing, emerging with an armful of books to while away the hours. On weekend mornings and afternoons, Swansea Central Library provided a larger selection to choose from, as well as expanding my taste in music and film with their cheap audiovisual collections. A few years later, it provided internet access for hasty GCSE revision and keeping in touch with friends. In fact, I loved Swansea Library so much I did a work experience placement there at 16; it was there that I truly caught the library bug. For any Dr Who fans this was, at the time, the library featured in the episode Silence in the Library. It has now moved to the Civic Centre on Oystermouth Road.
Both of these libraries provided an escape route; while I was physically trapped in an often quite boring, stifling environment, I could escape for a few hours with no additional cost and just a ten minute walk down the road.
So when I read about the extent of library closures as a ‘non-essential’ service, it feels deeply, deeply personal. Local authorities are cutting very much essential services without a thought for how this will affect the more vulnerable members of their communities. I was struck by this powerful article on library closures in Sheffield, especially its references to the Council’s idea of ‘hub libraries’ accessible by, at most, 30 minutes on public transport. For many people, including “working families” (buzzword of the day), an hour round trip and over-inflated bus prices don’t just heavily restrict library access, they make it damn near impossible. They bring time and money into the equation, which many people simply cannot afford. Communities are brought together by libraries, people seek them out in a world where your personal worth is increasingly judged by the amount of money in your pocket. Social exclusion is already rife in the UK, and will only be exacerbated by the closure of public libraries.
I have nothing but admiration for the groups campaigning against these devastating cuts, and am sorry I could not be more involved in the wonderful campaigns being run to fight against these draconian and often ideologically-driven cuts. Being constantly pressed for time and money myself (I’m currently working two, soon to be three, jobs to fund my Librarianship MA), all I can contribute at the moment is this: by restricting access to libraries, recreational and educational resources and a community base that is free at the point of access, councils are marginalising the vulnerable, alienating the poor and stifling social mobility within the UK. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation feature linked to above highlights that child poverty measurement should examine ‘how children’s life chances are affected by not having sufficient resources’. Fewer libraries will not just contribute to child poverty, they’ll make its effects even more unbearable as children and their families struggle to find a place to escape to for a few hours. Deny this at this risk of diminishing the chances of a bright new generation of creative and innovative minds.