I’m appalled by the proposals to close further libraries in Warrington. Thank you for enabling this consultation so that I can make this point to you all.
For decades and decades, for centuries, we have known that public libraries provide a vital service to their communities and are worth investing in and preserving. Not to put too fine a point on it, we called them the Dark Ages precisely because they were a time when the ability to read was withheld from the population, where reading was a skill that was jealously kept by a minority of clergymen and aristocrats, to keep the everyday person in the dark: uninformed and therefore powerless. Public libraries stood in opposition to that short-sighted, cruel and stupid dogma. Libraries were and remain a gateway to something better – something that isn’t yet known.
Public libraries provide our children with a space and a resource to explore their new world on their own terms, developing and following their own interests as they grow and are helped to grow. School projects, and thus the lesson encoded in those projects that learning for its own sake is fun, would have been impossible without reference libraries when I was a child; and random, chaotic, magical avenues of interest would have been closed to me from the get-go without free access to books. Libraries give children a space where they can learn to read for fun – not reading from school lists or making do with what’s in the home, but hunting out books -stories, pictures, facts, ideas- that seize their own unique imaginations, making their own connections and developing their own interests.
In this internet age, libraries are becoming -worldwide- local hubs for communities. Not just places where books can be borrowed, but safe communal places, where people can gather for community groups, internet access, adult learning. Where otherwise socially-excluded people can come together and not be expected to spend money. Where a community can publicly state what it is that it is proud about itself. I used to travel quite widely, and the local library was the first place I ever stopped in each new town, whether in the UK, Europe, the US, Asia or Australasia. It was in the libraries that you found maps, addresses, timetables, friendly faces. A village with a library was a village that understood its commitment to its community, a village that was building its version of the outside world within its own borders, for the benefit of everyone’s curiosity and inspiration. A town without a library was a town that was stealing something from its own youth.
I understand the argument that the internet can provide some of this, but it cannot provide the core services, the essential essence of the library: the internet is a tool, not a replacement. The library is a space, designated for learning, where everyone has access to the same resources. Staff on hand to help and guide and make suggestions. Resources that could never be afforded privately, especially to satiate nascent or fleeting interests – the very interests that we should be striving to instil and inspire in our children.
It is not sufficient to claim that the internet can do some of this and that therefore the council has the right to withdraw funding. Not everyone has access to the internet. The internet contains much that is inaccurate. The internet is still relatively new and dependent upon other private systems that are unpredictable and untested over the longer term. If anything, in this world of a burgeoning internet there is a *greater* need for libraries, because the internet costs money and in the drive to move more and more systems and processes online, more people without the financial resource or private confidence to use the internet risk getting left behind. Libraries these days are places where people can access the internet and learn to access the internet. Once again: libraries are a beautiful gateway to that wider world outside.
And I have heard the argument that libraries are less popular than they were. I’ve seen Livewire’s statistics. But I couldn’t see from the statistics they quoted to demonstrate decreasing interest in the library where they had factored in to their visiting figures the effect of shortening visiting hours or the recent closing of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, located through the same entrance as feeds the library. Look, I get that there are people involved in this argument who genuinely believe that the libraries should be closed, but being disingenuous with the facts in this way smacks of intellectual dishonesty, and I think that’s kind of disgusting. If people, whether LiveWire staff, councillors, MPs or even residents, genuinely believe that there is no creditable interest in maintaining a library then let them do their homework and provide a holistic view of the impact: detailed figures of use (book loans, internet station bookings, visits to use resources, numbers of voluntary groups hosted, durations of visits) rather than simply bark out a couple of clichés and vague statistics for a month or two before dropping the curtain forever. Critical reading: I learned that in a library. And while we’re on the subject: has the CAB office adjoining our local library really been standing empty all these months? I walk past it twice a day on my way to school with my children: I haven’t seen one sign advertising it being available or open for rent… I’m not seeing the effort to increase footfall or income or funding from LiveWire, just a powerpoint presentation assuring me that it’s desired, necessary and efficient to replace an existing, proven resource already owned by the community with a pack of lockers. I see no depth in thought, and that makes my skin crawl.
The final argument that I hear in favour of closing libraries is that there just isn’t any money. David Mowat’s argument in his open letter on this issue is that times are tough and budgets need to be cut and blah, blah, blah oh my god, that sounds to me like so much empty, blinkered, glib, point-missing rhetoric. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, if you’ll excuse something else I probably learned in a library. Of course there’s money, if you decide that what you might buy with that money is worth buying with that money. There’s money for foreign wars. There’s money for rationalising the legal context of foreign wars years after the fact. There’s money for bailing out financial institutions that have proven themselves -at best- to be systemically inadequate if not downright immoral. There’s money for debating whether a man should have his civic honours removed for his part in financial systemic inadequacy. In his letter Mr Mowat says that with Amazon people can just buy books these days… I thought we already had bought these books, between us, by investing for decades in our public library system. I’d argue that a few people up high have simply decided that they just don’t want to spend the money. And so we’re offered an arbitrary “hospital beds or libraries, which is it?” straw man argument designed to embarrass us into resigned apathy.
I would argue that we’ve already decided: a community needs a library. The hard-won status quo, a shared belief of our society, is that libraries are vital. Want to argue against that? Then do a damn better job than this one. Advertise your consultation, don’t just spit out a couple of open meetings and hope everyone is too tired to do anything about it. LiveWire, for god’s sake, I assume you *want* to provide these services, don’t you? Then make that argument to the council. Councillors, I assume you recognise the importance of these community resources? So argue with your political parties, protect budgets, find alternative solutions, trial ideas, hold referendums, do some local governing, fight for us. With the greatest of respect, it is the job of the providers of services and local government to manage and maintain communities that serve their people and improve their future. If that isn’t incentive enough, then remember that it’s the job of the civilian to hold its government to account, to hold it in contempt.
Thank you for plowing through this letter. In conclusion: your consultation has been paltry, lockers are stupid, and your idea of closing libraries barbaric and cruel.