In one of the lengthier titles of the Fair, No To Library Closures: The Benefits of a Public Library in the UK and Beyond; is the Library an Unaffordable Luxury in the Digital Age? put the library crisis under the spotlight. Funding is down, but the importance is up. In the last six years, over 300 libraries have been shut and over 8,000 jobs gone. This year, 111 further closures are scheduled. All raise their hands in agreement that libraries should be kept. But the real question is: why?
Home of information.
Author Philip Ardagh has used libraries all his life. All in attendance are on the same side, but he notes we must consider the alternative arguments. Regardless of digitisation, older people still go there for information, and it’s that community core that means he wants to keep them, not the miniscule royalty he gets for books being taken out, like many assume of authors.
Alison Wheeler has worked in libraries for decades, but primarily led Suffolk’s libraries out of the council to become the first library mutual – which is owned and answerable to the community. In four years, they’ve saved 30% of their budget and not one library has closed. They do longer hours, diversify what they can do – things like a gig space. She questions, is the council the right place to run a library? Her own experience should be answer enough.
Tom Mercer of Bibliotheca says that he has the opportunity to talk about both physical and digital libraries, and his experience has led him to work with both. Libraries are capable of more usage than ever, but are always the first to take the cut. When it comes to digital, it’s the convenience: the ability to access without being there.
“Libraries are fundamentally about people.”
The two main strands that come from here are: one major library or the many, and the topic of money in digital.
First, in Suffolk there’s a population of 800,000 people. There are also 32 libraries. A massive building would be no use, and wouldn’t serve the needs of the communities. “Libraries are fundamentally about people,” says Alison. They host events: classes, adult colouring, children’s activities. It’s about people coming together and doing things – the local approach is desirable, deciding the need best suited for the location.
Philip talks of a library in Birmingham that was built as a destination. Success was measured in footfall then, so in that sense it was enormous, but to pay for that they gradually got rid of many local libraries, and the big one has also been gradually doing less. It’s a shell of its former self, and lost many libraries along the way. Libraries are public spaces, and to be a private concern, they’d just end up being another Starbucks.
Reading is a hobby and luxury and, so the argument goes, the government do not fund luxuries. Flowers on roundabouts are nice, but he’s pretty sure they’re not a necessity. Literacy and reading are core contributors to our economy, notes Alison, so libraries are not a luxury.
Even digital becomes a community hub.
To spending, does digital fill the gap that politicians often talk about in terms of a library service? Yes and no. A digital only library operated in San Antonio, with apps and devices available in a small building. It had basically everything you’d expect in a library bar the physical book. But interestingly, it became a hub for the local community. People came together. The thing about digital is that someone is still needed to explain the knowledge available, how to navigate it and so on.
People still need help, and Neil Gaiman’s quote comes up: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a library can bring you back the right one.”
What people don’t expect is that the funding is still important in digital libraries, as they’re in fact dearer per unit in many cases. There’s no wear, higher accessibility. Digital makes everything easier, and you have to pay to be able to offer that.
Money or not, physical or not, the consensus is that libraries are about community and more. People need help, people need to be able to access things; fiction helps build human beings through empathy and new perspectives. Novels give you an understanding, and libraries give you a community hub.
In answer to the library being an unaffordable luxury in the digital age, it should be no. Many will say yes, many will see it as a luxury, but ultimately libraries are important and the loss of them is not a good thing.