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20 July 2022

Why libraries matter for Britain

These cherished spaces will play a crucial role in regenerating the public realm.

By Ken Worpole

“When I’m in the library, I’m not in prison,” an inmate of HMP Brixton told Nick Poole, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals. “That’s the library effect in a nutshell,” Poole said, as we discussed the outlook for public libraries following the collapse of visitor numbers during the pandemic. Poole is keeping a close eye on the rate at which visitors return, and working out how libraries reposition themselves in the post-Covid cultural marketplace. “We are still a long way from the public realm we need, and the public libraries we need,” he said. A day later he emailed: “The problem is not whether libraries are needed in a digital society (they are, arguably more so than in a pre-internet age), but of how they should be organised, managed and paid for.”

At present things are not promising. Reports from some London libraries suggest that many users have not returned, though opening hours and services are back to normal. Given the trend for funding cuts and library closures over the past decade in England, Scotland and Wales – more than 780 libraries have been closed since 2010, with the loss of 10,000 staff – politicians might be tempted to use the current visitor figures to justify further funding cuts. The UK is no longer the flagship of free public libraries across the world; its spending is well behind others, from £18 per capita in 2010 down to approximately £12 today. Some European countries spend around £25 per capita annually on libraries (in Finland it is £50). In 2005 the public library book stock in England, Wales and Scotland was 103 million; by 2019 it was 75 million, despite the growth in published titles.

“It’s a different picture depending where you go in the country,” said Poole. “Poor return figures in the big cities, almost back to normal in other areas.” This was confirmed by a senior librarian in the Midlands, who told me that the recovery in visitors had been faster in rural areas, where the library is as much a place to meet as to borrow books: “People come in to read the papers, attend a book group or knitting circle, do a jigsaw, bring their toddlers to Rhyme Time. Some provide space for weekly banking services where village branches have closed.” During the pandemic Suffolk library staff received training from the mental health charity Mind to help them keep in touch with isolated and vulnerable library regulars. In Ipswich, the service was in regular phone contact with 700 library users. When temperatures neared 40°C in London this July, Lambeth Council advertised many of its libraries as “cool spaces”.

[See also: A timely check-up on the GP’s vital role in the community]

Traditionalists may complain that such ancillary activities distract from the high-minded ethos of the free library as a dedicated place of self-improvement (the original “street-corner university” in the words of the former Labour minister Chris Smith). They may recall with approval the times when library staff cut out the racing sections from the newspapers and – this happened to me at Southend Central Library in the 1960s – made users sign a pledge that any reserved copy of Joyce’s Ulysses (kept hidden in a back office) would not be lent to a third party. Today libraries are having to address cultural and political sensitivities again, as was evident when a talk by the feminist writer Julie Bindel at a Nottingham library was cancelled by the local authority as a result of her views on trans rights.

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Ironically, the history of the library is also the story of the original safe space – the secular public common room. In The Great Good Place, his 1989 study of the sites and settings of informal public life, American sociologist Ray Oldenburg described the library as a prime example of the “Third Place”, a decompression chamber that bridges the gap between home and work or home and school. Hemingway got there first, with his idealisation of the “clean, well-lighted place” that offers sanctuary in the lonely city. For this reason, libraries are a godsend to refugees and asylum seekers, providing a foothold in a new country. Library users are de facto citizens of the world.

The pandemic has hit public libraries hard as people have learned to access goods and services online. With a library card – and just over half the UK population has one – readers can now stream or download e-books and audiobooks without leaving home, and many are doing so. Yet online borrowing highlights a long-standing library problem: the choice available. Those who ventured into the world of audiobooks during lockdown will have found the selection is limited: genre fiction, classic fiction, celebrity memoirs. But the diversity of books on the shelves can sometimes appear narrow too. There’s a reason why: to secure savings in staffing and book-discounting, selection has increasingly been outsourced to commercial library suppliers. These companies tend to work mostly with the larger publishers, which offer higher discounts and spend heavily on promoting established authors.

Meanwhile, books from small publishers disappear from view, meaning that works of local and regional history, black and ethnic minority culture, women’s studies, literature in translation, experimental fiction, art books, and natural history struggle to get a library showcase. Contrast this with a lively independent bookshop sector where the small store is “curated” like a personal library rather than a warehouse.

[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing]

Some library services are now adopting the indie ethos, displaying staff recommendations and creating themed displays. Yet with Amazon continuing to discount and hoover up online book sales, putting both libraries and bookshops at existential risk, the time has surely come for them to work together to re-energise the local reading public. Both have a vested interest in enlarging and extending the range of writers and subject matter available, in putting writers in touch with readers (particularly children, for whom the public library remains a cornucopia), along with organising live events, reading groups and book festivals.

The present crisis is vividly captured in John Bevis’s recent and highly readable gazetteer An English Library Journey: a quixotic adventure collecting library membership cards from each English library authority over the past ten years. It revealed a pattern of slow, apparently inexorable decline, epitomised by the reduction in professional staffing, reduced book stocks, and towns and cities where half or more of libraries have been closed or handed responsibility over to volunteers.

Yet there are success stories. Libraries have been in retreat before, in the 1990s, until urban regeneration experts realised their potential as flagships of civic renewal. In the UK this resulted in stunning new libraries including Barking, Birmingham, Brighton, Canada Water in south London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Southend. And though they have since been blighted by austerity, libraries still reach a more diverse audience than any other cultural venue on the high street.

Poole is optimistic. A few days after our meeting, he wrote: “We are heading into a society in which trust will be arguably the most important currency. Librarianship represents a professional commitment to the ethical mediation of trustworthy information, so I have absolutely no doubt that libraries and librarians will play a central role in the networked society that is emerging.” Like the historian Peter Hennessy in his recent book A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid, Poole regards the post-pandemic world as an opportunity to redraw the parameters of the social estate. When asked how he would sell his vision to the government, he replied: “Libraries have been levelling up since 1850.”

[See also: The lying life of Emmanuel Carrère]

Ken Worpole’s “No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the Land in Wartime Britain” was recently published by Little Toller Books

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party