Sunday, 21 February 2016

Save our libraries!

I went down to the library earlier in the week in my lunch break and got out a book for the first time in a while (it was 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' by Steven Pinker, £9.49 on Kindle or free from the library!). Libraries are a great resource, which makes it such a shame that Lancashire is planning to shut 40 of it's 74 libraries. I've used libraries ever since I was little, and have fond memories of my library visits. My first library experience was a small library in Thornton Cleveleys back in the days when they didn't have the now ubiquitous credit card style library card. Instead you had six tickets, I think they were orange, which were in effect little rectangular cardboard sleeves. When you wanted to borrow a library book, the librarian took your ticket off you, put the small ticket from inside the book, and filed it away until you returned the book. How quaint and 1980s it sounds now... Later my mother took me to a big new library that had opened in nearby Fleetwood, a huge (or what at the time felt like a huge) modern building full to the top with books. I used to love going there!
My  local... (© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Most of my childhood memories of libraries though is of Garstang Library. We moved to Garstang when I was 11, and from then on I was allowed to walk to the library on my own. I'd go in an evening after tea, at the weekend, or sometimes on the way home from school. I'd come away with a whole bagful of books, not all of which I'd end up reading, but over the years I must have read hundreds from the library and it really was instrumental in developing my love of reading. Sadly Garstang library is one earmarked for closure, and this isn't a small village, but a thriving town with over 4,000 residents. What's more it is the nearest town for many small villages and rural communities. If it closes, there probably won't be another library for 10 miles in either direction. When I was growing up, except after Christmas and birthdays I generally didn't have the money to buy books and the library was invaluable. Without it I don't think I'd have developed the love of reading that I have today.

Even if some children do have plenty of money to buy books, a) They'll probably spend it on something else, and b) Most small towns don't have a bookshop these days. Amazon may be a great place to buy books, but only if you are already a reader and know what you want. Now I know these days there's the internet, and while that may be a great resource for readers down the line, it isn't going to encourage children to read, and when they do it's going to be short articles (if they don't just stick to watching videos on Youtube), hardly the same.

Libraries have been around for thousands of years in one form or another, with the likes of the great Library of Alexandria, and before that the Library of Ashurbanipal (30,000 clay tablets, a far cry from the works of John Grisham et al). In more recent times, there have been public reference libraries and subscription libraries, but public libraries really started taking off with the Libraries Act in the UK in 1850 which opened the way for free lending libraries to open across the country, and later across the world as other countries followed suit. Governments and local authorities funded a lot, but many were set up with funds from wealthy benefactors. Ever heard of Andrew Carnegie? He was a Scottish born, American steel magnate, who after selling his company dedicated himself to Philanthropy, giving away the majority of his fortune ($78bn in today's money). One of the things he did was fund public libraries around the English speaking world, 3000 of them, including 600 in Britain! There's a good chance that your local library was one of the Carnegie libraries. I wonder what Mr Carnegie would make of all the library closures today?
By J Brew (Flickr: British Museum Reading Room)

The original motivation was that it would encourage people to do something wholesome with their leisure time rather than spending it in the pub drinking. In the 21st century, I think this rationale is as good as it ever was. People may be spending their time in front of the TV, computer or games console rather than just down the local pub, but encouraging reading is as important as ever.

The funny thing is though, libraries aren't just about reading. They're an important part of the community and one of the very few places where people can go for free to pass the time or meet up with friends. If you don't have access to a computer or the internet at home (and believe it or not, lots of people still don't), you can research online at the library for that job application, or write your CV. Want to get away from your desk for a bit in your lunch break? You can either go and buy an expensive Latte and sit in Starbucks, or you could go sit on a comfy chair in your local library for free. It is one of the few places remaining that isn't out to try and take money off you - what a refreshing change!

Libraries are a community hub too, an important place for local events, be they a reading group, a craft club or even a concert. I was vaguely aware a few years ago that my local library (Lancaster), in an effort to get more young people into libraries, was holding concerts for up and coming artists to sing at. I sniffed at it, and thought nobody good would ever come to perform at Lancaster library. I was wrong. Ever heard of Adele? She was one of many great artists to sing at the library. Don't let it be said libraries aren't moving with the times!

So even if you haven't in a while, why don't you check out your local library while you've still got it, you might be pleasantly surprised. Oh and sign the petition to save Lancashire Libraries (this is the UK government petition, there's also local petitions on Lancashire County Council's website regarding individual library closures).

Want some further reading? Have a look at this great article from bestselling author Neil Gaiman about the importance of libraries and encouraging children to read.