Laura Swaffield: Everyday stories that show our libraries are priceless

Have library cuts gone too far?
Have library cuts gone too far?
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A MAN goes into the library to read the newspapers. He’s had two strokes, he can’t work any more, he gets depressed. He can afford to buy the papers but he likes to sit reading with people around, and sometimes exchange a few words.

The librarian notices him and gets chatting. He tells her his story. She sympathises. That’s nice. Then she talks about the many activities on offer.

Now he comes to the library’s chess club. He has made friends. He says he now has something to look forward to, and it keeps his brain active.

Where else could that man have gone?

That true story, in a nutshell, shows how libraries quietly help millions of people with millions of problems. There’s the young mother going crazy at home, needing a place to take the kids that doesn’t cost money.

There’s the schoolkid who has nowhere to study in peace. There’s the Universal Credit claimant who can’t afford a computer, but has been told he has to claim online. There’s the teenager who needs somewhere safe to go after school. The youth club has closed.

There’s a whole host of people who need information on anything from careers to health, from business opportunities to cookery. Properly selected information they can rely on.

Local councils need to think how much they will spend picking up the pieces if all these people lose all these lifelines. Libraries underpin the work of many council priorities – health, education, social services, employment, youth services, even crime prevention.

Councils are now working out their budgets for next year. And looking for cuts. Far too many will opt – as usual – for a cut that saves the minimum sum but damages the maximum number of people.

I mean a cut to their public libraries. Why do so few councils realise that libraries are an investment, not a luxury? They cost less than one per cent of the budget. And the payback is enormous.

It’s not just the people who actually need help. Libraries are, of course, a treasure-house of free books – including expensive talking books and e-books. Reading widely, above all reading for pleasure, has been proved time and again to be a key success factor in children’s education.

And libraries are a place to have a good time. Depending on what people want, you might find a film club, holiday activities for kids, reading aids for blind people, board games, a 3D printer, a poetry group, rhyme times for toddlers, computer gaming and coding clubs, English language classes, music, crafts, art galleries, performances, training in video-making... libraries are infinitely flexible.

Every library has free internet access. That opens up a vast resource of information, entertainment and education. For starters, they have subscriptions to expensive online encyclopaedias. Library staff can help people find out what’s available. They also train people to use IT for themselves.

Don’t believe the ‘experts’ who say that everyone has the internet at home. Almost eight million people UK-wide don’t. And the same number have it, but have no idea how to get the full benefit. They could be saving money by shopping online, or Skype-ing their grandchildren in Australia, but they don’t know how to.

The magical thing is that libraries are used by people of every age, class and background. They share. They mix. A barely-literate adult looking for easy-read books rubs shoulders with the post-graduate accessing academic research papers. A lonely old lady ends up teaching knitting to kids. A teenager searches for the latest DVD movies alongside a posh mum or a Somali refugee.

Libraries are social glue. Their role as a meeting place is more needed than ever with the loss of local alternatives such as the church, the pub, the youth club, the corner shop, the post office, the children’s centre, cheap evening classes, playgrounds and one o’clock clubs.

In an increasingly divided society, that’s priceless.

The whole thing adds up to something unique. Nothing else has the reputation of libraries as safe, trusted spaces where anyone can go. Their information and advice is unbiased. They aren’t trying to sell you anything. You don’t have to explain why you’re there. You can stay as long as you like without buying so much as a coffee. The place belongs to you. You’re not a customer – you’re a citizen. In too many areas, the library is the last public space left standing. That’s a concept we can’t afford to lose.

But we’re throwing it away. In 2010 there were 4,482 libraries UK-wide. The current figure is 3,745. That’s at least 737 gone. And the damage is getting worse.

In libraries, we (still) have what amounts to 4,000-odd local drop-in centres that can do almost anything for anyone. All for free. They are (still) hugely popular – 260m visits a year compared with 165m to cinemas or 14m to Premier League football.

The whole thing, UK-wide – staff, premises, stock, internet connection – runs for well under £1bn a year. If that isn’t a bargain, I don’t know what is.

Laura Swaffield is Chair of The Library Campaign – further details can be found at www.librarycampaign.com