Close to 650 libraries have closed in the UK since 2010. Some that remain “open” rely on volunteers, have no paid staff, and need grants and donations to run. In 2018 alone 130 libraries were shut down. More than 700 staff lost their jobs; the number of volunteers is now over 50,000.
The concept of the public library, free at the point of use, was pushed by The Free Library Movement, Victorian philanthropists aided by sections of the Chartist movement who worked for “improvement of the public”. The Libraries Act of 1850, put forward by Liberal MPs, and backed by a free libraries pioneer Edward Edwards, set up the first public libraries run by boroughs and with government funding.
The Liberals had a strong patrician streak, wanting to raise standards within limits, and seeing access to books, particularly religious texts, as one way of doing that. Only boroughs with a population over 10,000 were able to open libraries, only after a local referendum of ratepayers, and with the proviso that the money taken from tax could not be used to pay for books. Two years later, however, the first public library was opened, in Manchester. By the turn of the 20th century there were almost 300 public libraries.
After World War One, libraries were handed from boroughs to County Councils, and they could build libraries without referendums. Libraries could now be built in smaller working class communities as well as in larger cities. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is supposed to put a duty on local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service”. But as early as the year 2000 only 15 libraries were open across the UK for more than 60 hours. Evening and weekend hours are cut first: the time when more workers are likely to be able to get to libraries.
Many middle-class former library users think that access to books and information on their smartphones, tablets, and Kindles makes libraries redundant. “I don’t need libraries, that stuff is all on my iPad now”, said one council leader. But libraries provide a system of support for working-class people well beyond their formal remit.
Since the destruction of local government under the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010 the services and informal functions of libraries have increased. When I worked in a library in west London it was one of the only free, accessible and warm places in the area. While the stats show that book lending and borrowing are down (and when you aren’t getting new stock in, what would you expect?) libraries are the one place you can go to use a computer for free, borrow the “Life in the UK” handbook, or get newspapers in Punjabi, Urdu and Tamil.
Having libraries reliant on the community means finding their own source of funding, providing their own stock and only being open when volunteers are available. The volunteers who have the time and resources to keep the libraries running are not necessarily attuned to the actual needs of the areas they serve, or to some of the more difficult tasks that staffed and funded libraries are meant to do. Volunteer-run libraries restrict access for children. A staffed library can have unaccompanied children from about the age of 11, but in one run by volunteers this is rarely the case.
The US communist and writer Richard Wright summed up the role of books he could access from a library like this; “It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself...
“It had been only through books — at best, no more than vicarious cultural transfusions — that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively vital way. Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books; consequently, my belief in books had risen more out of a sense of desperation than from any abiding conviction of their ultimate value.”
Low-paid workers, travellers, homeless people all need access to the internet . Applying for Universal Credit, sending off documents to the Home Office, job applications often require being able to scan in documents or type out long bits of information. All of which is much easier in front of a desktop computer with a reliable internet connection than on a smartphone.
Libraries provide books in the languages of the communities in the area — Farsi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Arabic, Somali, whatever — and for elderly people who have come to the UK with their families, often with little to no English, the library is the place they could find novels that connected them with the places they left. More and more people with complex needs, mental health problems and the vulnerable come to libraries, as they are one of the last places open that won’t move people on.
For older people, isolated and often alone, libraries and books can also help with issues such as dementia. Evidence suggests that reading can reduce the risk of dementia by 35%. And, as a library worker, I saw a number of people whose only human contact (other than about their health, with carers for instance) was the conversation they would have in the library when coming and taking out a book.