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Why Libraries? by Kerry Drewery

Libraries have been in the news a lot lately. With a supposed national debt that needs to be reduced, a sensible way to cut costs is to close libraries, isn’t it? After all, they’re not necessary really, not like say, hospitals, or schools, or transport links, are they? Close a few libraries nobody’s going to die, are they? And what really do we need them for? People can go buy books from a bookshop, or online. And even if you can’t afford to buy a book you want to read because you need to pay your electric bill that week, or you have to prioritise your money to buy food, then it doesn’t really matter. It’s only a book after all. It’s only a library. Right?

Libraries Kerry 1

Chetham’s Library in Manchester, founded in 1653. It’s the oldest library in the English-speaking World.

Well, no, not right.

Let’s just imagine for a moment that you’re a teenager, your family don’t have a great deal of money; things are tough. You really love to read, it’s escapism for you, it makes you laugh, lifts you from the humdrum, inspires you, you relate to the characters, it makes you feel alive, human – but you can’t afford bookshop prices. A book is a Christmas present, birthday present – they’re few and far between.

Perhaps you’re an older person. Your son lives and works abroad, it’s difficult to keep in touch, phone calls are expensive and there’s the time difference too. You’ve tried writing letters but the time between writing-posting-him receiving-replying- posting-you receiving…is long and often things can’t wait. You sometimes think about buying a computer, then you could Skype or at least email, but they’re expensive and then what if it needs fixing, and what about viruses and you’d have to pay for internet too and…it’s all a bit much.

Or maybe you’re a new mum and this baby thing is working out a lot harder and lonelier than you thought it would. Hours stretch like days between when your partner goes to work in the morning to when he returns at night. You love your baby, but it would be so good to talk to someone during the daytime, perhaps someone like you, a new mum, someone who understands.

Imagine yourself unemployed, no internet access at home to apply for jobs. Imagine yourself a student looking for somewhere quiet to work. A researcher looking into family history. A reader looking for a book club. A new resident looking for local events. Or someone simply trying to find out when the buses or trains run.

I’ve known examples of all of the people above, or have come across them when working in a library, and all of them found their solutions (or help towards it) in that special building – their library.

It’s not all about the books.

Some time ago I interviewed a library assistant (Bobbie Quinn from Grimsby Central Library) for a series I was doing on my blog, she spoke to me about the huge range of services the library offer – internet and computer access, printing options, job clubs, IT classes, CV advice, mother and toddler groups, reading groups, writing groups, family history, archives, tourist information, citizens advice, quiet rooms, DVD and CD rental, university information, public service information…the list goes on – and I asked her what she would change about her job if she could. She replied –

‘I wish everybody knew what we do offer, that whatever the traditional image of a library is that they have in their head – old, stuffy places where people go shhhhh all the time, it’s not that.  It’s their space.  If they don’t use us we will close.  Libraries are so important and there’s such a range of services.’   

Libraries Kerry 2

Grimsby Central Library.

But, y’know, it is about the books too.

It is about reading, the enjoyment to be got from it, but also the knowledge and the inspiration it can offer – whether intentionally or not. I read a fascinating piece written by Neil Gaiman for The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series on libraries, and while I imagine most of you are familiar with it, there’s part that’s worth sharing, it’s something I often find myself talking about when I go into schools and we discuss ‘why read’ –

‘I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.’

Libraries Kerry 3

Neil Gaiman speaking at The Reading Agency Lectures

Reading encourages you to think of what could be possible; for many people libraries make this possible.

And also this from the same lecture –

‘I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations. And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.’ Neil Gaiman: Why our futures depend on libraries, reading and daydreaming from The Reading Agency’s annual lectures.

When I was wondering what to write for this post, I had a google around at the history of libraries and came across the Public Libraries Act 1850, which apparently at the time was quite contentious. I’ve read the arguments given then both for and against the Act and these struck me in particular –

‘Against –

  • Access to certain publications would neither promote civil societynor act as a form of social control, and libraries would instead become sites of social agitation. This issue was linked to the common concern that extending education to the lower orders of society would lead to libraries becoming working class “lecture halls” “which would give rise to an unhealthy agitation”.
  • Others felt that there were more pressing concerns, and wondered about the necessity for a library when literacy levels were so low.

For –

  • Public libraries would provide facilities for self-improvement through books and reading for all classes, not just those who were wealthy enough to afford their own private libraries and collections.
  • The greater levels of education attained by providing public libraries would result in lower crime rates.’

The ‘against’ made me laugh (unhealthy agitation – my a**e) and made me shake my head (necessity…when literacy levels were so low – but isn’t that a reason ‘for’?).

Yet the ‘for’ made me think that although undoubtedly libraries and society have changed, those two sentences – argued over 100 years ago – still answer the title perfectly and if we knew it then, why, in a society that should be more advanced in its thinking, are we questioning their relevance and need now?

Libraries Kerry 4

Why Read?

Knowledge and the enjoyment of reading should transcend all classes, libraries make this possible.

To read Neil Gaiman’s lecture –

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Kerry DreweryKerry Drewery
Website | Facebook Twitter
Like so many authors, for as long as I can remember, I’ve made stories up in my head. However, it never seemed an attainable career for ‘normal’ people, so it wasn’t until about the year 2000 when my youngest child was about to start school and the prospect of returning to full-time work loomed that I thought it’s now or never and started taking it seriously. Twelve years, a lot of hard work and loads of rejections later I had an agent and my first novel – A Brighter Fear – was published. In those twelve years, as well as many rejections, I was also a finalist in a BBC script-writing competition, and achieved a first class honours degree in Professional Writing. A Brighter Fear was shortlisted for the Leeds Book Awards and my second novel, A Dream of Lights was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and awarded ‘Highly Commended’ at the North East Teenage Book Awards. I am currently represented by Jane Willis at United Agents.

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One comment on “Why Libraries? by Kerry Drewery

  1. dansmithsbooks
    June 26, 2015

    Excellent post, Kerry!

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2015 by .

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