Wednesday 26 August 2020

Why Saving Libraries is Not Just an Option, It's a Necessity

 On 28th July, Hampshire County Council announced that proposed plans to close 8 libraries had been finalised, along with a further reduction of opening hours to those remaining. I first heard about these plans as I watched a Tory councilor on BBC South Today defending these actions the next day. With uni (and being on the opposite side of the country) and the chaos of Corona, I was unaware of these proposals until this announcement. I was unable to contribute to the public survey, the results of which show that public favour is very different from the course of action taken by councils. It is fair to say when I found out about these cuts, I was incredibly angry. 

I am aware that this post is more specific, perhaps, than many of my others, however this issue is not a localized one. Libraries are worldwide resources, which have been treated with contempt by those in power (particularly by right wing politicians). Along with the NHS, libraries are perhaps one of the most radical institutions in the UK. In libraries, lie history. In history lies critical thinking, better understanding of our own and others’ experiences, and even increased empathy. They allow the circulation of knowledge for free. No matter who you are, libraries are open to you. 

Since 2010, and the introduction of austerity measures by the Coalition government (continued and increased by the Conservative majority government since 2015), almost 800 libraries have closed across England, Wales and Scotland. That’s 17% of all libraries. The number of paid library staff decreased 10,000 from 2010 to the end of 2019 – around 64% are left. This has led to an increased reliance on volunteer work to keep libraries going. While staff carry out the more specialist behind the scenes tasks, volunteers are able to do the smaller things which can take up a lot of time and are super necessary for support. For example, shelving returned books, preparing resources for children’s crafts, helping out with events. All this while staff are caring for customers and doing a variety of other tasks, some of which often require knowledge of specific computer systems. 

It is this push towards volunteer work which has allowed Hampshire County Council to avoid using language of ‘closure’ around what is, in reality, just that. Instead, saying that they are simply ‘removing Council funding’ from these 8 libraries. They can avoid definitely calling these moves ‘closures’ by showing their encouragement of volunteers to take over these libraries and to turn them into community libraries. While these aren’t proper closures, I believe it is still very damaging.

I want to make it clear that volunteers are amazing, and their work is invaluable. Volunteering in libraries is a great way for people to become more connected to their local community, for young people to gain new skills and aid them getting jobs, preventing loneliness in older people – I could go on. But when it comes down to it, volunteers aren’t the same as paid, regular staff.  Many library staff have decades of experience. They are well known faces in the community, with vast arrays of knowledge and understanding of not just the books they organize, but also of authors, technical issues, social issues, and are there as support for those who need them. 

And of course, in an ideal world, community run libraries would be incredible. They would get the resources they need to serve the community in the best way possible without question. But alas, capitalism won’t allow community projects to prosper. As these 8 libraries are being encouraged to become community libraries, this same policy move also removes any council support from 4 existing community libraries. Where, you might ask, is the consistency?

In addition to these closures, all libraries that remain are going to see a reduction of their opening times, with a target of 20% county wide. Currently, many libraries’ opening hours are already incredibly inaccessible for many people, opening from 9am to 5pm, and thereby excluding anyone who works during this time (i.e. probably most of the population). Libraries do need to be open at these times, as it is used for activities for babies and parents, as well as allowing unemployed people, retired people and students with flexible working hours to access the resources they provide. By restricting these opening hours even further, they are further limiting access to the library’s resources, not only for people who work 9-5, but also for the arguably more vulnerable groups who access libraries at these quieter times. 

Nevertheless, Saturday hours and late weekday closing times must be kept to keep libraries accessible for people who can’t use them during weekdays, otherwise face reducing their number of users and the number of books taken out on loan. Footfalls are incredibly important to libraries. If you’re a library user, you may not realise that the number of people entering the library is measured each day. This potential use reduction would consequently become a further reason for even more libraries to close, with the excuse that ‘people are just not using them’. And the cycle continues…

When faced with the choice of library closures vs county wide reduction of opening hours, the public chose a reduction of opening hours. Hampshire County Council have since ignored that result, going for a combination of both options with an emphasis on the one less favoured one. I have to ask, what was the point in a public consultation lasting months, only to ignore it? These actions point to the public consultation only being done for appearances sake, rather than for any real desire for meaningful input. As I have highlighted, this is not just an issue for Hampshire, but Hampshire County Council has been one of the libraries which has made a point of keeping their libraries open than in other areas, so this to me seems like a bad omen for what is potentially to come. All regions of the UK are affected differently, with different levels of funding. The North East, for instance, is the area with the fewest number of libraries.

Having worked in a library for nearly two years I have grown closer to the library system and all that it stands for. Of course, I would have argued until I was blue in the face that libraries need to be saved and of their paramount importance before I was a librarian, but afterwards, the issue now seemed more personal – and it still does. I have seen countless times how much a libraries are necessary and have made a difference. 

They provide a warm place for homeless people to go during the day, and Internet access to anyone who doesn’t have a computer, phone or data. Now, the Internet is crucial to so much that we do, especially in terms of finding and applying for jobs, university and even completing school homework. Since the beginning of lockdown, the government has introduced a scheme which means that councils can supply wireless laptops and tablets to children of school age (primarily those in year 10) who don’t have access to computers or Internet at home. This is incredible and means that disadvantaged children all over the country can keep on top of schoolwork and stay connected while social distancing measures are in place in schools, and afterwards. While this is a great start for widening accessibility and to resources, it doesn’t include everyone, not even all children who need them – but the resources provided by libraries do include everyone.

Libraries are a refuge. There’s no two ways about. To me, that is their primary function. They take in anyone who needs it, and can offer them help, support and friendship – something everyone needs no matter where they are in their lives or whether or not they think they do. 

Their most famous resource, and their original one, is the thousands of books they make available to the public for free. Libraries are one of the only (if not the only) public space which does not presume that you will spend money. I am incredibly lucky to have been able to have books of my own as a child, and that my parents were able to sit down and read a wide variety of books with me (including rushing to Aslan’s death in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe so that it didn’t come as a surprise to me when the film adaption came out. I remember feeling very smug that I knew he was coming back), but the reality is that many children don’t have that opportunity. Even with the books I owned as a child, I remember trips to my local library, the excitement they have, and still have my old Lennie the Leek library card (anyone from Pembrokeshire will get that reference). Libraries mean that children get to have bedtime stories when otherwise they wouldn’t have. To have a physical book in your hand is life-changing. Even if it’s only for a month, that book becomes theirs, and I cannot express the importance of that.

Education and reading is so important, whether in a formal institution like school or university, or informal situations like reading for fun. From rom-com books and holiday reads, to recipe books and dense academic texts, all books made accessible by libraries are important and deserve to be shared and read. 

I have no idea how many books I have read as a result of libraries. I just know it’s a lot. During my A levels, I got through loads of library books because I would read them on my way to and from college. I had a long bus journey and library books meant that I could fill this otherwise empty time with information about topics I cared about. I learned so much about feminism and world issues through the books I read on those bus journeys, and I wouldn’t have been able to read as many in that space of time if it hadn’t been for libraries. Those books helped form me into who I am today, and I am in debt to libraries for that.

Of course, libraries aren’t perfect. Charges, for example, are one reason many people cite as a reason they haven’t been to a library in years, and cause many significant problems. I’m not saying I agree with them or how high they can be (in fact I have seen studies which show that removing charges actually improves return rates and many places have now abolished them), but they are there currently and something which does need discussing. One of the most heartbreaking things I heard while working in a library, was a parent telling their children they couldn’t have books from the library anymore because the fines were costing too much.  On the few occasions I heard that, I lost any faith I thought I had. If libraries couldn’t prevent this, what could? Not only do we have to save libraries, we have to do our best to improve them and make them the best that they can be. I genuinely believe that if given the right funds, respect and with the right people working on them, libraries can change the world and make it a much better place. 

This whole situation can feel pretty hopeless. But what can we do to help? 

If you’re in Hampshire, write to your local councilor to let them know how much you disagree with this decision. Yes, it may have already been made, but there’s no harm in showing your outrage to somehow in a position of power. You can find your local counciller here

Make sure you use your local library. They vary massively in quality, depending on the resources they’re given and their place in the country (again, with varying funding levels of local authorities), but if you, I urge you to use them. As I mentioned earlier, footfall is a major factor in keeping libraries going. If you can, physically go into your library. Nowadays, there are lots of resources libraries have made available online (BorrowBox, for example), however, these buildings must stay open, and if most of their use is online rather than physical books, then the people looking to make cuts can use decreased footfall as an excuse to close libraries or reduce opening hours (as they have done over and over again). 

If you’re a student, consider spending a few afternoons studying in your local public library rather than your uni library. It will likely be less busy during the day so you won’t have to spend ages trying to find a seat during exam season. The same goes if you’re a freelancer (and not in a global pandemic and it’s safe to be working in public spaces). Bring a hot drink either from a local coffee shop or from home, and set up a little station for the day. Again, workspaces will vary from place to place, but check it out and see what’s possible. 

If you want to buy books instead of always borrowing them, keep an eye out for sales held in libraries. These often occur at the end of school terms, and have a wide variety of genres, target audiences and formats. The books sold in these sales are books which are deemed unfit to stay on shelves for borrowing. They may be old, damaged, faded, have a couple of pages missing, etc., but many are still ultimately fit for use, and are available for usually around 50p - £2. 

In whatever way possible, make sure you’re doing your best to support libraries. They are vital resources, and it would be a tragedy to see them dismantled even further.

If you liked this post you might like: Where to Access Books and Avoid Funding Amazon


  1. This post is so important, thank you for bringing it to my attention! Really insightful read x

    1. Thank you Della, I'm so glad it was useful!

      Jemima x

  2. Couldn't agree more! As a library assistant myself, I see the current trend and it worries me to think about the people who will be left behind and isolated if the library service isn't adequately funded and valued.

  3. This post is so important, libraries are such an iconic place in communities that they should be saved and stay open, I remember going to the library when I was a kid with my Nan and it was some of the most happiest times of my childhood x

    Lucy |

    1. So many people have such happy memories of libraries, it makes me so sad to think of all the good memories which will never be made because of cuts and closures.

      Jemima x