Lost for Words: What future for our libraries?

Libraries across the country are struggling to survive in a climate of budget cuts. Our writer reports from Warrington, where her childhood library faces an uncertain future

Feature by Rebecca Clarke | 07 Nov 2016

You’re walking down the street in the summer of 1964. A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles has reached number one and the government has just passed the Public Libraries and Museums Act, requiring councils to provide the public with a comprehensive and efficient library service. You’re probably thinking, 'Great! That’s really great news.' You’re safe in the knowledge that your children and your children’s children will be provided with a safe, warm space for learning about the world and their place in it. (And depending on which street you’re walking down, the library in question might just contain swish new bean bags to sit in: lucky, groovy, 60s you!)

Zoom forward to 2016 in Northern England however, and you might be feeling a little baffled. Over the last six years libraries have come under consistent threat, with a further 111 expected to have been lost throughout England in 2016. Lancashire alone faces up to 20 closures, and across counties in the Northwest upwards of 1000 volunteers are now running their local services. Last time I checked, being a librarian was a highly valued and skilled job, not an enforced hobby – but clearly times have changed.

Thanks to the 1964 Act, I’ve been pre-programmed to love libraries. I remember, around the age of four, running to find my favourite blue book, which rested on the third row of what seemed like an immeasurably high shelf. It was about a little girl who grew up to become a prima ballerina, and I longed with every fibre of my strangely gangly body to be that little girl. Two decades on, I’ve spent years working as a professional dancer and become a member of seven libraries across the world. I feel I owe the library a lot.

I’m currently living back in my home town of Warrington, where the financially squeezed council is hearing a proposal to cut/close a number of libraries across the local authority, offering instead to “transform the existing library service... through innovative methods without relying heavily on physical libraries in every community” – including potentially employing the use of “lending lockers” and “themed libraries on tour.” The proposal is called a 'Modernisation Consultation', although many in the community feel that LiveWire (the community interest company that runs the libraries in question) hasn't, as of yet, been taking on board any proposed alternatives.

Enter Jane Forshaw – she’s the all-singing, all-dancing, all teddy-bear-costume-wearing chief volunteer co-ordinator of a campaign to save my local library in Penketh, which is currently earmarked for closure. It’s 15 October 2016 and people from the local area have turned out in force to borrow books in order to show their support for this public service. Jane wants to know if the 'lending lockers' that have been suggested will be big enough to provide a comfortable chair and shelter from the weather for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

I ask a number of onlookers what this library means to them and I’m promptly escorted down various memory lanes. None is more poignant than the recollection of an abused wife who came to the library every day, enabling her young child to play with some toys and leaving her free to read the paper, talk to library staff and simply feel safe for a few hours. That child went on to receive a PhD and attributes the development of a love of reading to those early visits to the library. Women still come to the library in search of a safe haven. 

To my mind, as a social space the library is as current and necessary as ever and no technical developments are going to alter this. Some of us might be lucky enough to own a Kindle – and borrow from libraries' e-books services – but we are still physical beings who must commune in a physical space or risk becoming detached from our communities (Even the ancient Greeks, who promoted human sacrifice, thought libraries a vital breeding ground for human development – so how mad must we be if we axe them?!)

Toddlers can't play with a pop-up book on a screen, they must experience it in the flesh, just as many of our elderly citizens rely on the tangible companionship of a librarian for what might be their only independently achievable human interaction of the day.

What happens if our hard-won libraries are dismantled? What are the vacant buildings to be used for next? Anything? Or will their shells be left behind to commemorate a time when communities held the right to freely and easily access the information of their age – or at the very least, use a decent printer?

Libraries are not luxuries but part of the bedrock of any society that wishes to function productively; a sanctuary for all, within walking distance of our homes and schools rather than a bus ride away. Cut backs might be necessary, but why not look to the likes of Wakefield Council, whose efficient reduction in opening hours recently helped save all 13 of its libraries? Will future generations resent us because we listened to the trudge of austerity over the young voices of our children? Voices like that of eight-year-old Freya from Penketh, who asked the council not to close them because, well, we did promise we wouldn't...? 

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