I’ve missed my posting deadline by ages, I know – I’ve got no excuse, except the flimsy argument that I’ve known throughout the past few weeks that I would come back to writing soon, and I have. I’ll try better next time.
I have a few things I’d like to talk about over the next few posts, but first up comes a topic close to my heart, and a crisis desperately in need of support – what is happening to our libraries?
Most of us know the grim reality; sweeping closures, staff cuts and forced volunteering in place of salaried work, and an apparent loss of interest in society’s oldest and most iconic forum for learning and communities. Several governments across the globe seem to accept that these institutions are pretty much defunct.
Now, librarianship in some form has been an ambition of mine for a while. As a future MA student in the discipline, and in the face of the many-headed monster telling us derisively that these are things of the past, I have to laugh to save myself from crying.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people crying out against this problem since the end of last year alone, when the ‘My Library By Right’ campaign was launched with much media success. From the likes of best-selling authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, to the young family of four down the road, a real bastion of support has sprung up from all sectors of our society. But our band-aid-filled pockets are rapidly emptying, and these leaks ain’t slowing down.
Having recently begun volunteering at my own local library, I’ve had time to think about exactly why this is such a desperate issue, and there are so many reasons to keep libraries alive. Just one example: on what planet could it possibly be acceptable to no longer lend literature for free? The counter-argument that all texts are accessible online is nonsense, not only as a relatively tiny amount of texts have so far been digitised; they’re normally as painfully expensive as their printed equivalents!
But I don’t think this is the burning reason for keeping libraries (simply because it’s so undeniably obvious). I also don’t think it’s the similar suggestion that physical texts are headed for extinction; as a librarian, these resources still need to be managed, even digitally.
The fact is that for many, libraries are the only access to the wider, thought-provoking world. How many community centres have you seen over the past week? How many village halls? These places have already all but collapsed, like the dusty bones of an ancient skeleton, suddenly exposed to a hot gust of wind. With these gone, where are all the people who don’t fit into the modern world’s norm of social media, house parties or Zumba classes supposed to connect with everything else on this planet?
I’m not just talking about the elderly here (although providing a place for them to satisfy their social and intellectual needs is more than enough of a reason to speak up, surely?) Last Saturday, just five minutes into my voluntary shift, I had a teenage girl asking me what books I thought she’d like to read, because nobody she knew from home or school could help her. A short while later, a young boy wanted to know whether he could find help with a project outside of school time. Twice, I had non-English-speaking people ask about language-learning books, and for help in using the alien self-service machines. It’s worth noting that this was during just a two-hour shift.
These are just a few examples of people who, in some form or another, need dedicated, educational support. Yes, we have the internet, but if that’s all we need as a society, why don’t we scrap physical schooling, counselling, even socialising? Why can’t the library be a place for these people, too? The library might be one of their precious few safe, positive learning environments.
I don’t know what we need to do here; all I know is that libraries cannot die out. It would be like museums, or even hospitals. Sure, a library’s never going to heal your fractured pelvis, but it confers another, equally indispensable kind of health for those less confident, less privileged, less noisy members of society.