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Public Libraries - A Painless Cut?
Cutting Public Libraries, Why?
The United Kingdom has an impressive free public library network. However, as austerity cuts bite, many local authorities are looking to cut the number of libraries in their areas, seeing it as a way to save money relatively painlessly. Many campaigners believe that cutting libraries is a shortsighted, mean, policy that will have many unintended consequences that will weigh more heavily on poorer people, and lead to greater costs to society in the end.
One argument for this policy is that fewer libraries are necessary, because the internet means that people can access knowledge and research. It is a complete fallacy that most UK households have internet access. More than 25% of British adults do not have access to the internet. 56% of people without formal qualifications have no internet access at home, poor people go to their local public library to access the internet.
Information on the internet is not always trustworthy in any case. If it is trustworthy, it may well be too sketchy for the researcher’s purpose, and not all the information in the world is on the internet. The vast bulk of real knowledge is still in books, and the information contained within books is generally far more reliable than that on internet.
Many local authorities and the United Kingdom government think that volunteers could run libraries. The problem with staffing any service with volunteers is that you need a huge number of volunteers, who must have enough time to commit regularly to the project over a long period. Volunteers may be very enthusiastic in the beginning, but life changes and enthusiasm palls. In poorer areas, people are so busy earning a living that they do not have sufficient time to spend with their own families, let alone time to volunteer over time to a vital public service.
Cutting Libraries, Why it is false economy
Volunteers staffing libraries, however knowledgeable, are unlikely to have the training that qualified librarians possess. The service that volunteers give is, of necessity, inferior to that given by qualified librarians. Volunteers are unlikely to be able to point borrowers to the obscure book that will give them the facts, knowledge, or research that they need. However, volunteers doing unskilled library work, such as re-shelving books could support qualified librarians.
Libraries do not just lend books, many provide other services too. They lend video, audio, and digital media, besides providing people with the means to read all the newspapers and magazines, important when people are looking for jobs, in a slow economy. Libraries provide a quiet place for many children, especially those in deprived or overcrowded circumstances, to do their homework, and the help to enable them to do so. Whereas a mother might feel happy about allowing her children to go to the local branch library to do homework, she might not be quite so happy, if the nearest library were clear across town. Libraries also provide children’s activities, such as story times, book clubs, classes for adults, local history projects, and many provide a meeting place for other activities, so important when many other public facilities were withdrawn long ago.
Many branch libraries may be small but they provide a vital hub for their communities. For many elderly people, going to the library is a habit formed in childhood. Generations have grown up relying on their local library and it is a lifeline to many people.
In these difficult economic times, people are more interested in paying their bills and putting food on the table than in buying large numbers of books or expensive electronic readers to ‘read” books digitally. Libraries provide a much larger selection of books than any person could possibly buy or afford.
All these are very tangible arguments for retaining libraries, but libraries also give intangible, but nonetheless important benefits to the communities and people that they serve.
Many children’s first experience of the importance of sitting still, keeping quiet, and listening is during toddlers’ story time at the local library. This is an extremely important and difficult skill for a toddler to master, but one that will help him, or her, throughout life. Story time teaches toddlers that one voice reading a story can be just as interesting and enjoyable as a noisy television programme, or computer game. Getting children into good reading habits early means that they learn that reading is a pleasure, rather than a chore.
With so many fears about children’s safety these days, it is difficult for children to learn many skills that they will need as adults. Many adults will remember, when they were first allowed to keep their own library card. How they learned that, if you do not remember that library books must go back on time, the librarian might fine you or tell you off.
In the United Kingdom, library notice boards and, indeed, librarians themselves are mines of local information. If you want to know about local attractions, festivals, the local history group, where to find a dance class, adult literacy, or adult education classes, you go to the local library. Library notice boards are full of little cards and flyers about what is going on in the local area. Libraries hold registers telling when, and where, all local groups from scouts, guides, cubs, and brownies, to the Women’s Institute, the local archaeological society, and the Mothers’ Union meet. There are registers telling where to find emergency dispensing chemists, local doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, churches and other local services.
Children and adults, who are avid readers, whether their penchant is for fiction or fact, learn much general knowledge from the books they read. Those who have read regularly since childhood, know that they know the answers many questions because they read the information in books. Books are a storehouse of knowledge, enjoyment, and words. Libraries are far more than book depositories; they are local treasure houses.
Local authorities have to make budget cuts in hard times, and cutting libraries might seem a painless way to do so. However the idea that closing libraries is not a painless way to make economies is based on false assumptions and it will have far-reaching and mainly unintended consequences. Closing libraries and library services will fall disproportionately hard on the poorest people in society. Local authorities need to think again, and discover whether they could keep libraries open and still make economies in doing so.