Saturday, 8 February, is National Libraries Day in the UK. This wonderful event was set up three years ago to highlight the threat of library closures across the country and to celebrate the amazing work that's done by Britain's trained and dedicated professional librarians.
Last year, I wrote the following post for National Libraries Day. One year on, libraries seem more precious than ever...
But libraries serve the public, and the public good, in many other ways...
My husband grew up in West London. His family was not bookish (and neither was he, for the most part--playing football was his obsession). But he was an intelligent kid who had lost out in the 11+ selection lottery of those days and was sent by the local LEA to a less-than-inspiring or enabling Secondary Modern.
However, Jim wanted to learn--even though the system had determined that he had no right to--and and he wanted to carry on with his education.
To do that he needed to find things out--information about colleges, about what exams he might need to get to university. His parents, though highly supportive, couldn't really offer him much help in this area and the system, as I said, had already written him off.
So where could he and his family go for guidance? There was no internet in the 1970s, so where could they find the information needed to improve Jim's chances in life?
In the library, of course--his very own search engine, as he once called it.
The local library provided him with information. and with trained professionals who could help him find it. It also became the safe, quiet space where, once he began his post-16 education, he could work and study.
Jim ended up becoming a university lecturer. He's taught thousands of young people throughout his career, and probably values comprehensive education more than anyone I know. He had to fight for his chances-- they certainly weren't handed to him as a matter of course--and he hates to see anyone denied the opportunities he was finally able to take advantage of. Don't talk to him about how great grammar schools were, OK? Just don't...
Libraries have changed since those days, of course. But there are still plenty of Jims in the UK. There are still avid readers (more than ever, in these hard times) for whom books are not part of the standard household kit. There are still plenty of students who don't have access to the internet at home, or an adequate study area, or who need a quiet, safe, and free space to linger over an essay or just be alone for awhile.
If we care about people, young, old or in-between, we must care about these valuable public spaces. Closing libraries--or limiting access hours or the numbers of trained librarians--limits opportunity, diminishes life chances and lessens social mobility.
Libraries are great equalisers, and they are there for us all, regardless of age or ability to pay. We lose more than just books if we let them disappear.