We can't lose public libraries – they're as crucial for students as ever
Article By Greta Bellamacina for The Guardian.
The 6 February is National Libraries Day, instigated in 2012 by campaigners hoping to avoid further library closures, and to celebrate these temples of learning across the country.
Growing up, libraries played a huge part in helping me to establish myself as a poet. I discovered works by Anne Sexton and TS Eliot in a public library. I spent hours unpicking their lines and making my own interpretations. The library was a truly reflective space for me, away from school and away from home, where I began to form my own voice as a poet. There was the sense of excitement when finding something new on the same shelf a week later and taking it home at no expense. I absorbed a canon of books I could never have afforded to buy.
There was a staggering £50m cut from library budgets across Britain in 2014-15 and 106 libraries closed in the same year, according to the latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy annual survey of libraries in Great Britain.
The thought of a future without libraries compelled me to make a documentary addressing their decline. I wanted to show that libraries are symbols of social equality that were built initially by the working class to educate and improve their children’s lives and the country as a whole.
Author Jeanette Winterson says that “libraries are doing more education work than ever. Libraries and literacy cannot be separated”. She protests strongly against libraries being classed as “leisure”, alongside sports centres, and says they should instead be part of the national education budget.
The increasing, though almost silent, decline of public libraries in the UK means we have entered an incredibly worrying time for students. We are not only undermining the 1964 Public Library and Museum Act by cutting the opening hours and staff, but also forcing them to be run by local volunteers which seems to be an even more direct road to their deaths. Even in wealthy areas, volunteer-run libraries are struggling to pay for big expenses such as maintenance and uphold their library status.
William Sieghart’s independent report on England’s public library service, which was first published in 2014, revealed that libraries ensure that children from the poorest backgrounds are not left behind and give us the best possible chance to address the poor literacy standards in the UK. The most recent OECD report rated English 16- to 19-year-olds the worst of 23 developed nations in literacy and 22 of 23 in numeracy. Public libraries also play a crucial role in making sure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential and play a role in levelling out the class divide.
I’ve seen a number of public libraries in London close down in the last few years and have been alarmed by the lack of outrage. I’ve heard people say that the threat to close Belsize Park Library, in north London, doesn’t matter because “kids these days research on their laptops and buy books on Amazon”. This is a middle-class perspective and it ignores the hundreds of kids in social housing in the Belsize Park area who do not necessarily have laptops or one-click Amazon accounts.
The uni application system is failing poorer students like me
By eroding the free and equal access for all to books, which was long-struggled for in the UK, we are undermining the intellectual wealth of the country for the next generation – something we may not realise it until it’s a generation too late.
I recently went back to Swiss Cottage Central Library, where I studied in the evenings for my A-levels, which I knew would be bursting with current sixth-formers, gathered quietly and working hard.
Noah Perez, 17, a student at Camden School for Girls sixth form, told me: “I always get to the library early as it’s almost impossible to get a seat, especially as everyone is revising at the moment”; highlighting the fact that libraries remain indispensable to many students.
Yasmin Abdelrahman, 17, a student at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy, said: “This is the only place where people know not to distract you – it worries me to think that libraries might get wiped out as my school doesn’t even have a library or a printer.” Nina Lucas, 18, a student at Woodhouse College, added: “I’ve been going to the library every day and I feel a lot less stressed by the exam pressure – I know lots of my friends feel the same.”
It seems impossible to imagine education without libraries. The library is not an idea, it is not an archetype, it is not endowment. Libraries are rooms. Rooms of hope, rooms of concentration, rooms of dreams and study. They remain the last public spaces reserved for the free and equal learning