Monday, 7 September 2015

In Defence Of Libraries

Ping! An email drops to tell me my requested copy of Daft Wee Stories by Limmy has arrived at my local library. I know, you had me down as a refined sort of chap. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the sweary Weejie off of Twitter.

And there in a nutshell is the bizarre hybrid of a traditional-digital lifestyle many of us lead. I’m being loaned (not buying) a book (a physical book, not an e-book) I became aware of by seeing someone on social media (not because an algorithm recommended it).

Increasingly it feels like those who speak up in defence of printed books and libraries are dismissed as well-meaning but out-of-touch. These papery things of which you speak are nice to have, not essential is today’s downloaded world.

But I really do feel libraries are so much more than a set of shelves, and have so much potential given the challenges our communities face. My old Inverness buddy Ali Smith (her support was crucial in helping me get the first Inverness Book Festival off the ground in 2004) recently made a plea to protect libraries in the age of austerity. It’s so easy for them to be seen as a soft option when public budgets are tight.

Ali says in the three or four weeks that she edited her forthcoming collection of short stories 28 libraries closed. In the space of her writing those stories over seven years, 1,000 public libraries closed. Ali spoke about the “furiously important tradition” of “the democracy of reading, the democracy of space.”
Ali Smith, right enough

Even the Scottish Government appears slowly to be realising libraries’ importance.  It has earmarked £80,000 to help every local authority trial methods to give children automatic membership to their local library.

Giving children the best start in life must involve easy and enjoyable access to reading materials. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy - which has become a focal point as we head towards a Scottish election next May - shows a worrying drop in pupils reading and writing well.

The need to fight this good fight is pretty clear here in East Lothian.

In the current financial year the Labour-Tory-Independent-run council has slashed £50,000 from the library service across the county. This “efficiency saving” means cutbacks to the mobile library service, a review of branch professional posts (which sounds like jargon for fewer librarians) and the introduction of new technology.

In recent months the local libraries have had their opening hours reduced by as much as two or thee hours a week. The cutbacks to the mobile library service - fewer visits to outlying villages and no visits to primary schools - were defended by Tory councillor Tim “Wellbeing Spokesman” Day who said people in rural areas prefer to visit libraries in towns. But those very same libraries-in-towns have now had their hours cut! Altogether you can see it’s a service the local authority doesn’t value in the slightest.

Snobby critics like to portray libraries as in a poor state. Surely that’s a reason for investment! They say libraries and books are not important in the internet age. But just look at how important they are for keeping a community functioning.
The greatest arsenal we could have

Musselburgh library, for example, offers Bookbug sessions with songs and rhymes for babies and toddlers, book groups for primary school children and adults, a Sporting Memories Group, Knit and Natter, jobseeker help and technology learner sessions. It also takes donations for the local foodbank, stages exhibitions of local photography and offers internet access for those not online at home.

I’m one of those folk who still buys newspapers because I feel they give me the kind of peripheral vision you just don‘t get following, subscribing and even browsing online. I turn the page and see fascinating things I wouldn’t otherwise have sought out. Libraries are the same. People bump into each, exchange stories, ask questions, support each other and when it comes to reading materials you can take the plunge with something new for free (or at most 50p for a reservation).

Supporting our libraries could not be more important for the wellbeing of our communities. It does feel like a constant battle.

To quote Doctor Who: “You want weapons? We're in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room's the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”

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