All over the UK libraries are at risk.
As county councils withdraw funding from branch libraries, many of
them will close for good. My own village library, in a semi-rural
part of Buckinhamshire, is sadly part of the cull.
Some will argue that this is no bad thing, that libraries are a
relic of a different era and that the need for them has passed.
We're all wealthier and better-educated, they'll say, our schools
are better resourced. We can afford to buy books for ourselves and
Scratch the surface of this logic, though, and the flaws are all
too apparent. Granted, when libraries close, we may not immediately
notice their passing (they can't compete with hospitals, police,
schools on the list of essential services) but their loss will
impact upon the intellectual health of our nation just as surely as
they will be missed by the lonely old lady who pops in for warmth
and a chat. Our need for libraries is as great now as it has ever
Reading is still the cornerstone of education. It is impossible
to educate a child who cannot read, a mammoth task to teach one who
hasn't developed competent reading skills. Tutors who prepare
children for the 11+ and common entrance exams will tell you that
whilst verbal reasoning and arithmetical skills can be learned, the
equally essential vocabulary skills cannot. They have to be
acquired, gradually, via years of wide and comprehensive
Not does education stop when a young adult leaves school.
Learning is a life-long process. We all learn, everyday, through
our conversations with others, the documentaries and dramas we
watch on TV, by listening to news and current affairs programmes.
Most of all, we learn through our reading and I'm not just talking
about quality newspapers and worthy non-fiction. How many of us owe
our knowledge of early English history to the novels of Phillippa
Gregory, CJ Sansom and Ariana Franklin? I know I do! Maintaining
our reading skills as we grow older is essential to keeping our
minds alert, active and receptive to new ideas.
We need to read, we need books and it naturally follows that we
need our libraries.
Libraries, or more strictly, the professional librarians, have
long been the literary opinion formers of the nation. They sit
between publishers and the reading public, spotting emerging
trends, promoting new authors, introducing new ideas to their
customers. Countless authors have achieved commercial success
having first been championed by the library service.
What we shouldn't forget is that libraries are better stocked
than most bookstores. Even small, branch libraries like my own have
more shelf space than many small bookshops, offering us a wide and
continually changing range. Not restricted by the same commercial
pressures as bookshops, libraries can stock out-of-print works,
unfashionable authors, forgotten classics and undiscovered new
authors. The range of books available to us is far wider when we
have libraries to call upon.
Libraries enable us to take risks with our reading, to be brave
and adventurous. £18.99 on a new hardback is expensive for a book
that, ultimately, may not suit our taste. So we stick with what we
know. On the other hand, knowing we can discard a book after a few
pages and our wallet will be non the worse will encourage us to
widen our reading, try something new and, occasionally, to make
exciting new discoveries. That we can then go on to spend our money
on - in bookshops.
Libraries don't compete with bookshops, as many imagine, they
work alongside them, complementing the work they do, but they're
not followers, they are trend-setters.
But it's not just about the books. A library, like the pub, the
post office, the village shop, is part of the fabric of the
community. A place where people can go for some human interaction.
Don't underestimate the importance of this, those of you who go to
an office everyday, who have plenty of mates and family not too far
away. You need to be stuck in a place where you know few people,
with no company for hours on end but a demanding toddler, to
appreciate the importance of a kindly smile, a chat, being in a
place where there are other people. My own village is full of mums
with young children, many of whom are not originally local. We also
have a lot of older people, who may struggle to get around. We have
unemployed people who value the job pages in the local newspapers
and the easy access to the internet. What strikes me about the
whole closure of libraries business, is that those who will suffer
the most are the least advantaged among us, whose voice of
complaint can so easily be ignored.
As I write this, the anger I feel at the Government's decision
to withdraw support from the public library service hasn't abated.
In my mind, there were other worthier targets, but the deed is done
and we have to make the best of it. Luckily for my own village, a
group of people who passionately believe the library should stay
have been working hard for over a year now, to arrange its transfer
into community control. This is expected to happen at the beginning
of April. They have recently invited me to join them and,
specifically, to manage the future purchase and rotation of books.
I was honoured to accept.
The new era will be hard work, but not without its excitements.
For a start, moving to community ownership will give our village
control over books that has never been possible until now. Whilst
our two professional librarians have invaluable knowledge of local
reading tastes, their purchasing ability has always been limited.
Ours will not be. New adult fiction and non-fiction will be ours to
choose. If we want to expand our biographies, historical fiction
and women's interest, we can. If we want to rid the library of
crime we can. (But only over my dead body!)
One area I'm keen to explore is young adult fiction. There are
many bright young readers in our village who are not well catered
for at the moment and who have to travel to bigger libraries. At
the same time, young adult fiction is one of the most exciting
genres in publishing. What a fabulous opportunity to bring together
brilliant new books with bright young readers who are eager to
explore them. I want to work soon with a focus group of this age,
enabling them to tell us what books and authors they want to see in
No one, especially not my neighbours, should imagine the battle
is over. Passing libraries into community ownership hasn't saved
them, it has given them a stay of execution. If we are to keep them
into the future, we'll need the ongoing commitment of our
volunteers and the financial support of our sponsors. Most of all,
though, we will need our libraries to be used. The future of our
libraries, more than ever, is completely within our hands and now
is the time when we must prove (or not) that they are a resource to
be valued and kept.