Last year, I met a lady who told me that she wasn’t surprised that libraries were struggling these days – “I suppose people don’t need them, now that you can get everything on the internet”. To me, it matters that some people believe that libraries are being phased out – 800 closed in the UK since 2010 – as some sort of evolutionary progress.
I should declare an interest: I’ve been lucky to have visited some great libraries, and libraries have been a good friend to me throughout my life. As a freelance editor working from home most days, with all work interaction – and a lot of socialising – happening on a screen, I value the company I find at my local library as much as a quiet alternative place to work. So, I’m a book person by profession and by nature, and a library regular.
But people won’t be able to find most of what I value in a library on the internet; some important things aren’t deliverable down a fibre optic cable.
Last year, my local library – in Brackley, Northamptonshire – was threatened with closure or drastically reduced opening hours. Our county council was in financial crisis and all options for cuts in public services were on the table. But the people of Brackley and surrounding villages reacted with a determined campaign, letters to our MP, and a good-natured sit-in to raise awareness. In the end, it stayed open, with slightly reduced opening hours. We rejected the idea that our library was dispensable.
Today, I can’t imagine life in Brackley without the library. Surely I’m not the only one who values the companionship that I find there. It’s a place buzzing with activity: Knit & Natter, jigsaw club, IT skills sessions for seniors, Job Club, baby and toddler sessions, films, quiz nights, tutoring, homework club, freelancers working – I’m not the only one – and, yes, people simply reading books. Last month, some lucky pre-school children were taken on an imaginary journey to the moon and back by Wriggle Dance Theatre. I was there by chance, and the children’s reaction was a joy to see. In short, as well as books, the library provides culture, learning, companionship, networking and self-development to people of all ages. Hope and light at a time when world events provide little of either.
Is all this a dispensable throwback to the pre-internet age? No. It’s vital that we appreciate libraries as one protection against creeping isolation and negativity. My library isn’t one of the silent ‘Sssshhh’ libraries of old, but the noise is OK with me. It’s the noise of a vibrant community, the sound of people sharing their knowledge and their passions with the next generation.
For me, that’s the point of libraries. And I think people do need them.