Ann Cleeves: Why we need to save the Great British librarian from extinction

Bestselling author Ann Cleeves.
Bestselling author Ann Cleeves.
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In wake of a new report which shows 350 libraries have closed in the last six years, crimewriter Ann Cleeves on why we all need to fight for a happy ending to this particular story.

I Don’T remember the exact day I first stepped into a library or how old I was when I borrowed my first book. What I do remember is the feeling each time I walked through those doors. It was an adventure.

The librarian and I got to know each other. She knew what books I liked and she knew far better than I did what else might spark my imagination. Often she would put some books aside and the next time I went in she would produce them from behind her desk. It was like magic.

Since the programme of library closures began it often seems that we have only talked about the buildings which are in danger of disappearing. Since 2000, 350 libraries have gone, but we have also lost people, highly skilled people.

According to a report out this week, in the last six years, 8,000 jobs have also been lost. Most positions have gone for good while a few are now being filled by volunteers. Those who are prepared to give their time for free to ensure their library remains open are to be applauded. However, well-meaning volunteers can’t ever take the place of a full-time, trained librarian and we shouldn’t ever kid ourselves that they can.

Most of these volunteers tend to be older, often retired. They may love books. They may believe passionately in libraries, but are they the best people to organise events for a bunch of teenagers with piercings and tattoos? I would suggest probably not.

The very best librarians know how to put together a collection which balances bestsellers with more off-beat work and their experience tells them which events will pull people through the doors and which won’t. Without them we are in danger of losing something very special.

Access to education is the very foundation of democracy. Years ago people fought hard to establish workers’ education institutes that gave the very poorest in society the opportunity to learn. Today there is an oft repeated argument that libraries are less necessary because the internet has made knowledge more accessible than it ever has been before. Perhaps. But only if you have a computer. For a great many people the only computer they ever see is the one in their local library. The fact that many of the libraries which have either already closed or which are facing their final chapter are in deprived areas is a double blow.

It is also economically ridiculous. According to the Government’s own figures, the creative industries are worth £8.8m an hour to the UK. From advertising to gaming companies, these are people who know how to tell stories which excite, inform and entertain. Libraries are where many of us first discover the art of a great narrative and where our own powers of storytelling first come alive.

A few years ago, along with my publisher Pan Macmillan I decided to come up with a way of staging library events that didn’t require me to be there. It’s important because libraries don’t have the funds that they did to pay author expenses and most authors receive far more requests than they can ever deal with. Together with the Reading Agency we put together a murder mystery pack based on my novel The Glass Room. It includes a script, a CSI report, ‘whodunnit’ forms, basically everything needed to stage a successful murder mystery night, one which I hope will engage with regular readers and pull in a new audience.

Libraries will only survive if they are social, vibrant places where people can discuss books, staffed by experts in their field. Libraries and librarians aren’t a luxury. To ensure education is open to all they are a necessity.

Ann Cleeves is the bestselling author of the Vera and Shetland series. Prior to becoming a full-time writer she worked for the library service in Kirklees.