I’m not really sure what my aims are in writing this post. Perhaps I’m looking back on the year I’ve had and looking towards the election in May. And I was inspired a bit by the wonderful Hollie McNish. Anyway, here are some thoughts on public libraries in England.
I worked in public libraries for almost four years. I started in January 2011, when cuts were starting to take effect. Working in the county’s flagship library was enjoyable, at first; I met some wonderful people and I got to recommend and find books for people. When I started I was shown the very old newspapers (the 18th century ones had servant jokes) and ancient, rare books in the basement. I found it quite fascinating. Then I moved to a community library and I didn’t enjoy it at first, but I ended up valuing it. I didn’t help people as much academically, and we didn’t have interesting rarities on the shelves, but the community was interesting and diverse. I did a lot of the displays in the children’s library.
This reminiscing has me editing out the bad parts: the bureaucracy and lack of funds, the woeful computer systems, the general public-ness of the general public. But I think that the bureaucracy is worst of all: when those in charge try so desperately hard not to offend anybody they end up being most offensive.
So I think that I know something about public libraries; I no longer work in libraries and this allows me to see things more clearly, because the slow but constant undermining of them angered me. You know what the problems are and you know the expensive schemes won’t work. I end up caring about where I work more than I should: my jobs are jobs that can fund my studying and writing. I don’t want to think about them when I get home. I suppose one of the things that saddens me the most would be that the people who need the libraries most are people who don’t have a political voice, or any real kind of voice. The children who depend on the homework clubs, the adults who aren’t good on computers, people who want to learn English, lonely people, people who depend on their communities. Not people who have fancy computers, who can afford to buy lots of books. People who have never had to struggle might easily call libraries outdated. People who have support systems, childcare help and disposable income don’t need libraries, so why should anybody else? Just buy your books online, they’re cheap! Just buy a new printer to print your CVs from!
Libraries don’t cost much; and I don’t want to create a simplistic greedy miser argument, but it’s difficult not to. Those who are making the laws at the moment and, let’s be honest, those in the shadow cabinet too, have, on the whole, not had to depend on the public sector and therefore see no use for libraries. Most of the people in positions of power grew up in a privileged bubble and most of them seem unaware of this.
Hollie McNish has put this so succinctly recently in a new poem, a link of which is here. Libraries, and other public sector institutions, will be continually pawed at until there is barely anything left. When I think back to when I started working in libraries four years ago it seems so decadent compared to now. And I know that this sounds very fatalistic but I can’t see many possibilities of it getting better when the people making and enforcing budgets don’t understand desperately needing public services.