Public libraries have played an important part in the lives of millions, especially before the advent of the internet when, in order to retrieve information, you had to go to a physical building and start searching the shelves. Not all families could afford to own books, let alone a full encyclopaedia set, like the Treccani in Italy, or the Encyclopedia Britannica in the UK.
My local library was a like an oasis. I remember browsing those shelves for hours, looking for a new world to take home with me – generally of the horror variety. I always felt a moment of pride whenever I dished out my card to the librarian and watched as she checked her records to ascertain if I was a trustworthy reader, with no delayed returns or books missing in action!
And then there were the stamps on my card; I was so eager to fill all the slots, so that I could add it to my collection and get a brand new one. It was a bit like getting loyalty stamps for coffee. Of course, this was better, because you didn’t just get the last one free – you got them all.
Needless to say, as soon as I moved to Edinburgh, I went straight to the Central Library, which is housed in a gorgeous building. It was opened in 1890 and funded by £50,000 from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
When I did my degree at New College in Edinburgh, I absolutely loved spending time in the library. It was founded in 1843 and is one of the largest theology libraries in the UK, with over a quarter of a million items. It comes with its own ghost stories too so, whenever I had to venture down to the underground levels, it took all the courage in the world (when I could, I would drag a friend along to keep me company, I’m not ashamed to say). The books were older down there, their smell deeper, the light dimmer: surely a recipe for a horror movie, If I ever saw one.
Public libraries have many functions and offer multiple support services, such as improving literacy and numeracy, or developing English as a Second language; they have kept pace with current times by providing computer terminals and ebooks; they organise writing awards, such as the Green Pencil Award of the Edinburgh Council, book festivals and the opportunity to meet authors. I have countless pictures from my ‘Meet The Author’ events in the Edinburgh and Midlothian libraries, full of enthusiastic children eager to learn more about their favourite characters. It helped me grow as a writer, and it gave me the chance to meet with my readers, who are a fundamental part of my life.
It is an unfortunate reality of our times that library services make headlines for the saddest of reasons: budget cuts. As the population grows, so too do council expenditures. Proposals for how to cut costs make their way to the citizens, which is where you can make your voice heard.
The latest proposal by Edinburgh Council on the matter of libraries, for example, would see a total of £2.8m being “saved” from the library budget by 2020. The idea is to ascertain if libraries are in line with 21st century requirements, and how they can play a wider role in providing advice and support for local communities. To make this happen, some libraries will continue to exist as they are at present, as standalone entities, while others will need to combine with community centres and be run by local communities.
Current employees have been offered voluntary redundancy at this stage and the option of early retirement. But of course, compulsory redundancies could very well be just around the corner.
Anyone who works for the council will tell you that, since recession hit, people have been worse off. The workload has increased, but not the number of employees. It’s a case of needing to do more with less. And now it’s the libraries’ turn to be put through the grinder. Already, staff members from the public libraries have been replaced by volunteers, especially in cases where the library has merged with a community centres, like in Cardiff – the Rumney Library closed its doors and moved into the Partnership Hub and is now staffed by volunteers.
I am against closing services such as public libraries, whose function is to improve so many aspects of our lives, from literacy to numeracy, general knowledge, practical skills and inner development obtained through reading – to name but a few. These are all important aspects of humanity – the capacity to create by way of the written word and to learn how to grow through that. As for the matter of volunteers, aside from the fact that professional library staff have undergone training, gained qualifications and chosen it as a job, imagine if someone walked up to you and said, “You can go now; we’ve found someone who will do this for free.” How would you feel?
Many UK councils have been already been affected and many are waiting for Christmas to see what the settlement for local libraries will be. That proposal will be up for consultation. It’s very important that people take the time to be heard by their local councillor because, as citizens, you have the right to be heard; and the more noise you make, the more attention will be paid to it.
We will let you know how to access this new proposal when it comes out, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, you can respond to the current one by clicking here.