Sharon Canavar: A crime against the libraries that save lives

AN image is haunting me. It’s this: an empty library building. Where? In any Yorkshire village, town or city. It’s disused, perhaps vandalised by a bunch of disaffected kids. This image could be all too real if this region’s councils sees through their decisions to shut at least 60 libraries across Yorkshire.

Sure, the poets, authors and celebrities have told of how they wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for these cultural cathedrals, as shown by poet Ian McMillan and others on these very pages. But it isn’t just about losing potential poets, it’s about changing the fabric of the community and making a choice to cut a key front-line resource at what cost to the future?

Harrogate’s own main library is safe from closure (others such as Bilton are not). Harrogate has just reopened after a major refurbishment, so the people of at least one North Yorkshire town should continue to enjoy a good library service.

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The newly sand-blasted wall reveals the words “Carnegie Library” carved above the entrance. What would Andrew Carnegie and his fellow Victorian philanthropists, who ploughed their own fortunes into providing libraries for all to access, think of the 23 closures in North Yorkshire alone?

They knew that libraries are central to a progressive civilisation. Times are tough. Jobs are going, education will be increasingly for the rich. To add to these miseries, we will also be culturally bereft, with more people feeling marginalised, particularly those who are already most vulnerable in our society.

Libraries are not just about books. They are bedrocks. They are arts centres, information and advice points and internet cafés. They provide opportunities for social interaction, for the elderly and the young, and act as welcome and orientation for new residents. But where the cuts will really hurt is the rural areas; not least the mobile library service which truly acts as more than just a place to exchange your weekly romance novel – it’s a point of contact, communication and often a support service all in one.

We need to see councils responding to the challenge – not making easy but wrong decisions. Now is the time for hard choices because if they are done well there are major benefits to be had.

We know the challenges we face with our public finances is significant but the public will not look kindly upon a council who take the easy path with the decision to close 50 per cent of our library services. Our county faces major challenges of rural isolation and reduced access to educational and cultural opportunities – even in times of economic prosperity.

Libraries are not an indulgence. They can have a transformative power – especially for those marginalized, disenfranchised, alone, or simply open a world of stories and imagination to readers young and old.

Here at the Harrogate International Festival we know a difference libraries and literature can make to a community. The partnerships we’ve created with the library services across the north of England through the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is demonstrated through our outreach and community delivery, working with our reader-in-residence, taking authors to libraries across Yorkshire’s rural communities, providing access to writers, who can inspire, excite and engage. Our Big Read campaign picks a crime book annually which – via libraries – is taken to the heart of communities. It brings people together, people who might otherwise be left out, isolated, cut off, alone.

Crime is the most popular genre in library borrowing. It’s a genre that gets people reading, thereby encouraging and enhancing literacy, and perhaps the power of libraries is best demonstrated by those most marginalised within society, with prison libraries throughout the UK changing lives.

At this year’s crime writing festival, we’re celebrating this with a specific event certain to cause controversy. Why? Because it consists of ex-offenders. Former prison inmates on the panel include Erwin James who served a life sentence for murder before becoming a Guardian columnist; ex-football hooligan Cass Pennan who experienced “more violence than most people will experience in a hundred lifetimes”, and Noel “Razor” Smith, a lifelong criminal with 58 convictions, who turned to books after his son died.

The panel will explore the difference libraries and free access to books can make to those who are marginalized and disenfranchised by society – whether it be racism, poverty, rejection or desperation.

Libraries in prisons are a vital tool in rehabilitating offenders and these writers are living proof of this fact. Access to books is one of the most powerful rehabilitative forces we have. Words empower. They can restore humanity and hope. Library closures could have devastating effects on a resource that is capable of turning disadvantaged people’s lives around. In some areas, will it come to the point of prisoners having greater access to library resources than the general population?

It is said that we have to make cuts, and anyway, in the digital age, libraries are increasingly obsolete, but since we’re talking about books – here’s a story: A 14-year-old American boy has designed an App that has topped the iTunes worldwide free app charts, beating the likes of Facebook and Skype. How did he learn the coding? From a book borrowed from his local library.

There’s no shortage of stories or voices speaking out online, proving that the real world of paper and page is one that can live harmoniously with the virtual one. On Twitter, the book trade has climbed into the ring with its Fight for Libraries campaign. Celebrities, authors and poets are passionately Tweeting their corner. This is about the very fabric of our society.

I urge you to join the fight to save our libraries, our communities – our humanity. We have a battle worth fighting for. Don’t let these cuts lead to an increasingly barren cultural landscape. Make room for the little library in the “Big Society”.

Sharon Canavar is chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals.