Why do libraries matter? by Alan Gibbons

There is something essentially ironic about a crisis. Never has there been so much coverage of libraries in the media, but never have libraries been more vulnerable. Tens of thousands of people are taking up cudgels to protect their local branch library while local and national elected officials and various bureaucrats are simultaneously sharpening their knives to make the deepest cuts to their funding in decades. With each passing day libraries attract ever more passionate defenders while an increasingly vociferous lobby questions whether they even need to exist! So why do libraries matter and what are their prospects?

Letís start by setting out the challenges in all their depressing details. For starters, there is the scale of the economic crisis and the ensuing spending cuts. When the British government drew up its spending review, public services were told to expect a 28% cut over four years. As a legal challenge by library users in Gloucestershire has demonstrated at the High Court, some authorities are cutting their public library service at double that rate. While some councillors are doing all they can to mitigate services others have made draconian cuts something approaching a badge of honour. Some four hundred libraries could lose their funding. This has stirred up a hornetsí nest of opposition.

On February 5th, 2011 a Save Our Libraries Day initiated by the Campaign for the Book brought some ten thousand protestors onto the streets in 110 Read-Ins up and down the country. This day of action was designed to support and publicise the efforts of scores of local campaigns.

It is not just public libraries. Some head teachers have put their school library at the front of the queue for spending cuts to balance their budgets. They are implementing freezes on book purchasing or even the closure of the library and the loss of the librarian with catastrophic implications for the students who donít have books at home or public library membership. Even more vulnerable are the School Library Services that depend on schools buying in their expertise and book collections.

The enormity of the savings the Government and councils are demanding is not the only issue facing libraries. In addition to the cost argument there is an ideological sub-text. Prime Minister David Cameron is pressing the case of his ĎBig Societyí agenda. This has placed the issue of replacing full-time, paid staff with volunteers, even though most studies of volunteer-run libraries demonstrate they are only set up as a last resort when local authority funding has been withdrawn and depend on a near-heroic commitment from a large reservoir of committed individuals. Finally, there is the digitisation. Why, some are arguing, in the age of the Internet, do we need libraries as fixed, physical spaces at all? Why canít it all be done on-line?

Letís go back to basics and the most basic of all social and educational basics in a modern, information-driven world is the right to read. If you are to access the new and old information technologies, if you are to interact with the blizzard of narratives trying to explain a changing world, you have to be able to read and read well. So which countries are rising to the challenge and which ones are not?

Well, according to the PISA international reading league tables, South Korea and Finland are triumphantly climbing the podium to collect gold and silver medals while the UK is still labouring round the final bend. The UKís relative position in international reading league tables has dropped from 7th to 25th in a decade. The report from which these findings come observed that British teenagers are less likely to read for pleasure than those in high ranking countries. That would seem to make the case for the continued importance of libraries in general and fiction stocks in particular. It is also a strong justification for professional librarians who have the expertise to advise readers. You donít just need to be able to access information and process functional language. You also need to be able to construct an intellectual environment that enables you to interpret the wealth of information and explanations available.

Those who argue that physical libraries are no longer necessary and believe that funding individual computer ownership would be more cost-effective would do well to examine the experience of the top reading nation South Korea. South Korea has a very healthy reputation as a computer-friendly nation, but it is still choosing to build 180 new libraries. Quite simply, the Koreans understand that individuals who browse and read for pleasure are more likely to be literate than those who do not. 

The National Literacy Trust has found that children who go to the library are twice as likely to be good readers than those who do not. This is not just a matter of picking up a book. It is also about browsing, comparing and discussing the reading material available.

There are a number of reasons why private computer ownership alone will not replace the social, communitarian experience of going to a library. In purely factual terms, a third of the population does not have a computer at home, but there are more important considerations. What exactly do people do on their computers at home? A recent report found that children spend about five hours a day on screen based activities at home, roughly the same amount of time they are in school. A large part of that time is spent on computer games. While there are some excellent games in the market, there is very little language or intellectual flexibility involved in some of the gaming and the child is often merely tapping into a ready-made world. When their reading inspires them to write a story they are creating a world of their own.

Much Internet browsing is also just that, skimming and of course purchasing, probably the main driving force of the Internet. A lot of this has dubious educational value. Library visitors are much more likely to read in depth and use the Internet for study and career-related activities. They often go with family and friends so there is also a community aspect to their visits. When users have been interviewed why they are so attached to their libraries, this social dimension figures high on the list of their concerns. They often say that the library is one of the few community facilities left in their area. Individual, private internet usage is often seen as a much more atomised activity.

To summarise, libraries are necessary for a number of reasons, including the following:
  • the countries at the top of the international reading rankings value them more than those lower down
  • they offer support and expertise to people without ready access to books and computers at home
  • they offer a social space within which communities can meet
  • children who use them are more likely to be good readers

The good news is that libraries continue to be popular. At the last count there were three hundred million visits to UK libraries. This could and should be more, but the main reason for dropping usage is not a loss of public affection but the fact that councils have been cutting services for years and some are quite simply no longer good enough through no fault of their own.

Refurbishment and renewal are needed not accelerated cuts. The good news is that libraries have a number of strong advocates. The latest initiative undertaken by the Campaign for the Book is the calling for a National Libraries Day. This has the support of just about the whole book and library world. That is because we know that libraries matter and that libraries work. We will campaign for their continued existence and for measures that allow them to flourish.

We will not go gentle into that good night.

Alan Gibbons is organiser of the Campaign for the Book.

Banner by Graham Dean, with thanks to staff and public at Blackburn with Darwen Libraries.


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