Saving Words: On the Importance of Libraries

Cuts, cuts, and more cuts – our libraries are under attack. One writer reflects on a lifelong love for her local library and the need to keep the doors open, especially in these difficult times

Article by Nyla Ahmad | 10 Nov 2023
  • Library Illustration

Coatbridge Library is what I refer to as a ‘Celebrity of My Life’: the places, people or things you are bound to hear about if you spend more than twenty minutes talking to me. Other ‘Celebrities of My Life’ include my shower-loving cat, my best friend, and my friend Heather’s borderline erotic aptitude when it comes to ordering dinner for the table. On 28 September, it was announced that North Lanarkshire Council would close 38 leisure facilities across the constituency, including six libraries and their mobile library service. Although Coatbridge Library wasn't one of those North Lanarkshire announced to close, I immediately thought of my second home and those of many others. I felt the worry that comes with the news that a dear friend could be leaving you. It felt akin to the time I knew the home I grew up in was a place I could no longer visit, that I’d never again do the jiggle and twist of moving my key in the lock. 

Coatbridge Library is not a remarkable physical space. I struggle to conjure an image of the carpet in my mind, but I can see the shelves and tables clearly. I can smell the Mars Bar hot chocolate and coffee sachets I would Frankenstein together in the coffee machine, and I can very clearly feel the sense of comfort and awe I always felt there. The library itself changed location when I was in high school, moving from a standalone grand building to the bottom floor of the Buchanan Centre, which also houses doctors' offices and dentists. It is by no means an architectural marvel. Coatbridge Library is not exceptional against other libraries; it is exceptional precisely because it is simply a library. 

Libraries are cornerstones of communities. They reduce social isolation and come with huge socio-economic benefits. Estimates from CILIP suggest that every £1 invested in libraries returns between £5 and £7, which is a return of between £5bn and £6bn a year for the UK economy. These financial benefits extend to their users as well. Following research conducted in 2020, Scottish Book Trust reported that 94% of those with children use the library to access print books for them. Meanwhile, according to National Literacy Trust, children and young people with good reading skills are four times as likely to have good financial skills, compared to their peers with poor reading skills. This is not a statistic to take lightly, considering that Joseph Rowntree Foundation found  nearly one in five families in Scotland are living in poverty, and, as reported by Early Intervention Foundation, children from the poorest families in the UK are up to 19 months behind their peers in their vocabulary by the age of five.

Looking at the local community I grew up in, North Lanarkshire poverty is higher than the national average, with the council reporting that nearly one in four children are living in poverty. I’m not saying one can simply read their way out of poverty, it’s obviously a lot more complex than that, but I am saying it has long been proven that reading for pleasure is one of the strongest indicators that a child will break the poverty cycle, and libraries are crucial blocks in building this habit.

But, for me, the sheer joy libraries bring to individuals and communities is reason enough to value them and keep them. My library was a place where I could read what I wanted simply because I wanted to. I was not going to be graded and I didn’t need to justify spending money I didn’t have on a book I wasn’t sure I’d like. Having access to books you can read for free, in a place that you do not need to pay to exist in, is hugely important for our wellbeing but also to our creative souls. I will always champion the enthusiasm, interest, and imagination of other human beings. When I am 80 years old, I hope I maintain the knee dexterity to still get on the floor with a child to draw them a polar bear blinking in a blizzard (it’s easy, you just draw the nose). I hope I never stop being someone who starts conversations with people I see reading books I’ve read or want to read. Coatbridge Library kept this spark glowing in me and there’s a wonder inside me that simply would not exist without it. I don’t want to lose it, and I don’t want to think about who I would have been if it was never ignited.  

Following an online uproar, North Lanarkshire Council chose to reverse their decision to close all 38 facilities. I thought I’d feel relief but instead I felt a creeping dread about how the decision was made in the first place – without a full public consultation or clear evidence of empathy for how beloved these facilities are. Although the libraries where I grew up are currently safe, libraries remain under threat. Earlier this year, The Scotsman reported that since 2010, one in eight Scottish public libraries have closed and funding has dropped by 30%. I am not hopeful for the future of funding for libraries, but I am ready to shout loudly against their closures. Let’s not take these vital hubs for granted and let’s do everything we can to keep them open – for wellbeing, for opportunity, and for joy.