Talking libraries

A comic convention, a visit from Darth Vader, a carol service, a 30-strong choir from the Sage. What am I talking about? One day in a library ...

I've spent a lot of time in libraries lately as part of the Read Regional campaign. I've judged council-led writing competitions in North Tyneside, appeared at a beautiful central library in Middlesbrough as part of the World Jam Festival, celebrated Hartlepool library’s 21st anniversary, engaged with readers and writers right across the region, all of which has demonstrated why libraries are important to all of us.

Newcastle City Council are proposing to close ten libraries, reducing the overall network citywide to eight—as well as reducing the budget for books. They justify the radical proposals by stating that 96% of people will have no further than a mile and a half to travel to a library—but is that really good enough?

Last weekend, I spent the afternoon at Denton Burn library asking local people this very question, trying to gauge their response to the news. It was 8th December, a Saturday just over two weeks before Christmas, and yet the library was full. I met people from right across the social spectrum. All had strong views on the cuts.

So what are libraries for and why do we need them? If my visit to Denton Burn is anything to go by, the borrowing of books is just a small part of the story. I only needed to look at the notice boards to see that the library was the very hub of the community it serves. The list of events they run is comprehensive. It includes author events, life long learning courses, reading, educational and local history events, IT courses and events for young writers. The library is also involved in other activities such as national festivals, engaging with local nursery groups, and providing one-to-one mentors for children excluded from school. They look outward into the community too and were proud to mention launching a local heritage and habitat walk in June of this year.

Library users are unilaterally appalled at the threat of closure which will effect all age groups and, it has to be said, some of the most disadvantaged in our society who rely on the library service to take them to places they may never physically go. One lady had been visiting the library for over fifty years since it opened in 1961. She was devastated by the proposals. It was clear to me that for her, life will never be quite the same and she felt powerless to do anything about it. I heard also of a 90 year old who visits the library every single day of the week. This lady’s response to potential closures? ‘It’ll kill me!’

Children will also be among the casualties. I talked to a mother with toddlers in a play/reading area who was gutted by the thought that the library may close. One father told me his teenagers attended two different schools and two different libraries for homework, both of which are earmarked for closure—a double whammy in his case. Transporting the children to the city would be his only alternative, but he had neither the time nor the means for this.

Something I haven’t touched on yet is the interaction between library staff and users. It was close and personal. The member of staff who’d given me a tour of the building when I arrived knew everyone by name. She introduced me to some local children, two Asian boys among them who’d just moved into the area. They proudly told me that the library had helped them settle in. A comment from another child:  ‘My grandpa likes books on history and he won’t be able to get what he needs if it shuts down.’ This from a worried nine-year-old boy.

Throughout the time I spent at Denton Burn, the ten computers were in constant use by men and women and children. The adults told me they didn’t have access to one at home and were using them for job search purposes with no idea what will happen if this vital facility is taken away. Many firms these days use online application systems only. One user was particularly upset because library staff taught her how to use a computer in the first place.

But it isn’t just children, the elderly or unemployed who use the library. One thirty year old I met was a regular user, an articulate working man whose relationship with libraries will end if his local facility closes. When I asked him why, he explained it was time rather than cost that would prevent him from switching. An avid reader, he spoke passionately about the detrimental effect on the local community. He’d been introduced to the library as a child and felt angry that the council was penalizing a demographic that had no access to books, computers, social media and mentoring that affluent people take for granted. He spoke about the library as a ‘safe space’ fulfilling a social need. An example of this is the holiday club that keeps children occupied in gainful employment when school is out.

We all know that councils have very difficult decisions to make on how they spend their money and that over the years it’s been necessary for libraries to diversify. Librarians have met the challenges, creating groups for all sections in society, sharing library buildings to accommodate those who came forward to use them. Where will these groups go now? Some may find alternative premises but many won't. My own village library has been squashed into one small part of the tourist information centre. Some might argue this is better than complete closure - and they may well be right—but no one could convince me that it is the same as it once was. The choice is limited for a start. There is a computer but nowhere to sit and read, no quiet area for study. It's books on shelves, not a library!

And what will happen to those trained, wonderful members of staff called librarians? They’re not just someone who stamps books and sends a fine out if they aren't returned by their due date. They are specialist staff with an intimate knowledge of literature and local history—all of which will be lost if libraries close down. And what of those who don't have the means or mobility to reach the libraries that survive this cull? Accessibility is a real issue for a lot of people I talked to, particularly those struggling on the minimum wage.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, I’ve been touring libraries and doing author events as part of Read Regional. I've met with readers and many aspiring writers and poets along the way, including a young man recently released from prison settling back into his home town. He’d met my fellow author Russ Litten through his post as writer in residence at HMP Everthorpe. The young man told me that it was Russ who had encouraged him to express his feelings in poetry. The author had assisted him afterwards to get his work published and turn his life around. The young man in question has since gone on to win an award for his work. Which brings me to another point …

I’m a former Probation Officer who used to work in a local prison where education was deemed to have an importance above all else. The largest prison library in the UK will serve fewer than fifteen hundred offenders, the smallest many less. But I can tell you there would be uproar if any of them were to close. Why? Because it would be bad for morale – all communities thrive on aspirational activities. Libraries do change lives, in or out of prison!

I’ve said before, the author events I’ve been involved in aren’t just about the writers who appear at them. They are about self-expression and education and sharing of ideas. They are about words, written and spoken. They are about the people they reach, like the young man I mentioned above who made connections with other writers in a way that would never have been possible had an event at a library not taken place. Or the young Asian brothers feeling their way in a new community, the nine year old worried about his grandfather, or the 90 year old who visits her library every day.

In my honest opinion, these libraries fulfill a real need that cannot be met elsewhere. The proposed closures are incredibly shortsighted. Libraries were set up for philanthropic reasons, to educate those who would otherwise not have access to such facilities. Those reasons are still valid today. Lots of things that can’t easily be measured will be lost unless we fund our local libraries.

On the 5th December 2012, a woman I'd never met left me a message in response to a blog post I'd written for the Read Regional website. Quote: Our central library is like a glowing diamond of knowledge in the middle of the town – I love being in it! I give the last word to a Denton Burn library user who said simply this: They (the council) should find the money – libraries are about education and education is our right.


Mari Hannah is the author of Settled Blood, published by Pan.