The Library Campaign has warned that hundreds of libraries may close not only for the pandemic, but permanently. With councils under financial strain and Walsall’s council leader even asking, “Do we need [them]?”, the future of libraries needs protecting. Libraries are an indispensable service for numerous groups, in particular disadvantaged children.
When I was growing up, libraries felt like a lifeline. I come from a low-income family where books were counted as a luxury: for birthdays or for special occasions, nearly always second-hand, to be kept and never thrown away. To this day, buying books feels like splashing out. I find myself shocked by friends who go book shopping on a whim, for themselves. (I have one friend who will always leave a bookshop with a small stack – which seems to me highly reckless.) This is not to say that I don’t like reading: I studied literature and now spend much of my time writing about new fiction.
Libraries deserve credit for battling to adapt during lockdown. Most local libraries have transferred the bulk of their resources online, from encyclopaedias to e-comics. Yet such library initiatives have been shockingly under-publicised. I only became aware of these digital resources during this third lockdown. Lack of information is not the only issue facing disadvantaged children: between 1.1 and 1.8 million do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, according to Ofcom. Many families share only one device. Those that most need digital access are the least likely to have it.
For many underprivileged children, libraries are crucial not only as a resource but as a space. They can be an escape, offering anything from a place to feel independent to a refuge from troubles at home. I had my own domestic worries when I was a toddler through to my late teens: amidst my parents’ conflict for custody, then the upheaval of the separation between my mother and then-stepfather, my local library was a haven. Though tiny, the library contained worlds of freedom locked within each spine. Not only were the books a distraction, I saw myself in the characters I read about: Matilda, hiding from her foes behind toppling towers of hardbacks; and David Copperfield, who finds solace from his family’s turmoil in the pages of a hefty novel. Books helped me to make sense of my own experiences and made them feel slightly less lonely.
In the wake of austerity, 773 UK libraries have closed since 2010, totalling cuts of £250 million. With Leeds City Council announcing this year that it will be pruning back services, there is serious cause for concern. A 2016 study showed that by the final year of compulsory schooling, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have reading skills nearly three years behind their more advantaged peers. An earlier study showed that reading for pleasure outweighs parents’ socio-economic background as a factor in children’s success. Children from underprivileged backgrounds are less likely to own books, and so library lockdown can mean that the opportunity for young people to overcome class barriers is literally closed off.
Charities are fighting back. The Free Books Campaign, Doorstep Library and Children’s Book Project (who have been donating bundles of books to school food banks) are leading the front. While their efforts are going a long way, more needs to change. Many young people won’t be reached by these campaigns – ideally, like the provision of laptops to students throughout Covid-19, there would be a similar nationwide government scheme for books.
Even this does not solve the issue of the essential space libraries provide for underprivileged children. For myself, most of the excitement of reading came from being able to crane my head to look at the spines, flick through physical pages and choose what I wanted to read next. More than that, libraries were a safe space to use without having to ask. Countless young people right now will be struggling in difficult situations without wanting to call for help.
If children can’t go to libraries, maybe the way forward is to bring libraries to children: some have already been setting up under tents, while in the US, staff have turned to mobile libraries, including book bikes and an 'Icicle Tricycle'. Yet these schemes have their limits (bad weather especially). I would like to see libraries trialling booking systems for children from low-income backgrounds. If libraries can be made safe for small numbers, they could make a huge difference to young people.
Whatever the future holds, the pandemic has made it clear that we need to rethink how essential services are made available to those who need them the most. Libraries are not expendable, and I hope that the way they are cared for in the coming years reflects the value that they hold for their communities.
Miriam Balanescu is a freelance journalist who has written for The Guardian and i News. Her short stories have appeared in Stand Magazine and streetcake.