If you haven’t visited a library in years, you might think nobody goes to libraries any more. Well, you’re wrong. In the time it takes to read this entire sentence, 40 people have visited a library in the UK.
You might not need a library today, or tomorrow, or for years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one in your community. Because like a hospital, or a second bridge over the Bristol Channel to Wales, or the police – one day you might need it. And when you do, just like you’d need those other things, you’ll really, really need a library. Someone else in your community needs one like that today.
Libraries are often used by people who are in transition from one thing to another. People who are in between being born and going to school use the library for stimulation and to begin to understand book-based culture for the world of learning. Older children, learning to work independently, use the library for help finding valid references for essays. People looking for new courses or careers use the resources of the library. People who are in a new town, finding out more about their past, recovering from illness, spending hours alone in old age…all these people regularly use the library.
Where else can you go that costs nothing and always welcomes you? Where you can not only be entertained and distracted from what ever problems you are facing, but also get reliable information on solving those problems? I said in a previous post that a library is the intellectual hub of a community – sometimes people very much need the access to knowledge it contains. And more than that, they need to be physically inside a place that celebrates and collects the fruits of human struggle – they need the companionship that place brings to their own situation. Because a library is also a place personal difficulties are recognised and normalised.
But that’s not to say that libraries are only warm and fluffy. They’re also a good investment. Libraries pay great finaincial dividends. The young people using the wifi and quiet they can’t get at home will get better exam results. People in need will recover from their problems more quickly and contribute once more to the economy. Companies thinking about locating in the area look for libraries as a marker of the quality of potential employees. Children with access to books in the home attain much better in school than children without. In pounds and pence, as well as in hearts and minds, a library has a value that is nearly impossible to overestimate.
That’s why we need to fund libraries.
A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.
If you’re trying to write (or do anything else difficult), you might like to hear my collected wisdom from the A Place in Words project. There’s only a few minutes of it – I think they pretty much got the lot.
(This post has been rewritten after an earlier version was mistakenly deleted.)
A common excuse for not funding libraries is, ‘We don’t need them anymore. We have the internet now.’
We do have the internet now – my parents nearly went broke buying me a spanking set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but during her primary education, my daughter used the wifi instead. The problem with getting your information from a general search engine comes when you need to be sure of the information you get and it needs to be more extensive than a three line entry.
There’s an awful lot of information on the internet and, as we all know, not all of it is useful…or even true. Aliens, I hate to break it to you, did not kill JFK.
Another name for Librarians is Information Scientists. That’s what their special post-graduate degree is in, Information Science. In our generation, we have a great deal MORE information that needs to be managed. So why would we assume that we need FEWER people to manage it?
Some information (broadsheet newspapers, peer-reviewed academic journals, e-books) are only available behind a paywall. This is the kind of information you want a secondary school learner to read for extension work. It’s beyond the ability of most households to subsidise access to enough paywalls for one child, let alone two or or three. However, it’s not just the kids who will sometimes need top-quality, curated information. When you’re making a decision about your future; about a career choice or a business deal or a possible house move or a medical question, you might want some, as well.
Librarians are trained to evaluate, store and discard information – and that means digital information, too. Through your library, you can often access online information that would ordinarily not be freely available. And through a librarian, you will be able to identify the latest and best information on any topic – instead of making an important decision on the basis of what your sister in law’s neighbour saw on Facebook.
And don’t even get me started on the difference between reading on an electronic device and reading a book. I do both, of course, like most avid readers. But a recent study proved that children get more enjoyment from reading paper books . That might be because they learn better from the paper version. Buying a load of paper books is expensive and they’re hard to store (I could show you pictures of my house). They get dusty (achoo!) and… But at a library, you can just borrow them and hand them back again. You get online resources and paper resources at a library, so you can decide what’s best for you and your family.
We’ve got the internet now, I know. Which is why we need properly funded libraries and librarians even more.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a library?
A library is not a collection of books. Above you’ll see why it’s not. This is The Ship’s library. The Ship is my local pub and this is their book corner. It started off well, but in the three years I’ve been…erm…monitoring it every Friday evening (with a pint or two), it’s gone right downhill. All that’s left is old tat.
That’s because there’s no librarian. Any fool can bring books onto a shelf – any fool can buy all the latest books the reviewers say are good and stack them in alphabetical and Dewey Decimal order. But librarians don’t just know how to do that…they also know what to throw away.
Librarians are trained to curate information; trained to gather information (yes) but also to evaluate it, decide if it’s still valid and get rid of the bad stuff. They’re Snopes in real life. Only they don’t just evaluate the worth of internet memes and rumours and fake news…they can monitor and evaluate EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION ON THE PLANET. They can also store it, manipulate it, find it, file it, retrieve it and archive it and will know when to do all those things.
Let’s look at another example: A friend of mine was at the dump/tip the other day and saved a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 from going in, not even the book bin (which gets picked over by charity shops) but the paper recycling.
Librarians also know what to keep.
Libraries aren’t stacks of books: they’re the repository of a society’s knowledge. In good libraries, everything on the shelves is of worth; good fiction, up-to-date and verified non-fiction, poetry worth reading, how-to books that actually teach you how to do something, reference materials that are collections of the latest and best thought humanity has to offer.
They’re the intellectual hub of our communities and librarians are their maintenance crew. Trying to have one without the other is like trying to run an airline without any mechanics. The planes might look very pretty. But I wouldn’t like to fly in one.
For the last three years, I’ve been a Royal Literary Fellow, helping all kinds of people improve their writing.
Here’s a piece I wrote for the University of Cardiff, about my time there. I hope you enjoy it (even though their editing went a bit wonky in places!).
For the last two years, I’ve come onto this page, posted something (usually moaning about writers’ money) and promised to post regularly. Then I’ve disappeared again…for months at a time.
I have shame.
But the fact is, things are going well. My books are being reviewed and are actually selling (I got a royalty cheque – I thought they were fictitious). I’ve got a new job…I’m now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol…and I wrote a new book over the summer.
In the photos, you can see me hanging out in Soho, signing a stack of Coyote Summer at the Bristol Waterstones and attending my last graduation at Bath Spa University in my doctoral robes from the University of the West of England. (In case you didn’t know, your official academic robes are decided by the last place that awarded you a degree. Academics spend all their time at graduation examining each other’s robes and talking about the ones they like, wishing they’d thought about this when they’d decided where to do their PhD.)
And then there’s the photo of the most glamorous thing of all – hanging out with eminent children’s authors and discussing how to help families re-wild themselves using our narratives. Julia Green, Gill Lewis, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris were there as we discussed the #mywildworld initiative… and I even got to meet Karin Celestine and her wee felted animals. There’s a chance that some of these authors may come onto this blog and talk about their glamorous literary lives soon.
But let’s keep it real. I spent my summer holiday mainly at the tip as my hoarding family finally decided to declutter. I wrote my book so quickly because I had a stomach bug and was pretty much tied to my bed and the loo for two weeks. My royalty cheque is going to stop my shower from leaking through the kitchen ceiling. Then it will go towards repairing my kitchen from the deluge.
I’m still not rich and I’m still not famous. But I do love my literary life. And it is, sometimes, actually glamorous…