The reaction to the publication of the Sieghart Report highlighted a number of important issues about public libraries, but one above all others – politicians clearly have absolutely no idea at all what librarians do and what libraries are for.
Sadly there still exists the antiquated and naive view that libraries are only required for people who want to borrow a book. This is utter nonsense and deserves to be challenged. That is as narrow a view as suggesting that trains are only for delivering people to work.
So, for all of those people who still haven’t bothered to find out what libraries and librarians actually do, let’s have a closer look at that.
Let’s look at a day in our imaginary library. Our imagined library is in a rural community of around 7000 people, mainly young families and older people. The community is thirty miles from the nearest big city and has an erratic train link and a limited bus service. There is no community centre and no Citizens Advice Bureau. The council offices are out of town, as is the hospital and minor injuries clinic, and other local provisions have been cut. Even though this is an imagined community it is one that is mirrored all over the country.
One of the things that our imaginary town does have, is a library. Built with philanthropic money at the turn of the 20th Century it is in the market square, right in the middle of the town in a place designed to be accessible for all. The people of our community rely on the library for many things.
A young mother needs helps filling in the forms to apply for school for her children because she has no one at home to help her. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to find the forms online and fill them in so that her child can go to school.
A couple need help finding out what services or help is available for their elderly parents. They go to the library and the librarian gives them information about books on wheels, local care provision and what benefits they might apply for.
An elderly person living alone faces another winter in isolation. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to apply for winter fuel allowance online, and then she sorts out a volunteer to pop around with books and shopping once a week.
A young couple have moved into the area and do not know anyone. They join the library and the librarian tells them all about local childcare, local clubs and facilities. They borrow books and leaflets about the area and even join local reading groups.
A man is told by his doctor that his vision is failing. He talks to his librarian and she helps him to register online for services for visual impairment and, twice a week, she helps him to choose audio books by reading the boxes out to him. She even saves audio books for him that she knows he will like and she knows which ones he has already had.
What else are you looking for? List of local doctors and dentists? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Information about local planning applications? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Can’t work out how to use your computer? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Stuck at home with small children and need some time-out? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Lonely, depressed, isolated? Go to the library and talk to the librarian (or just be somewhere safe and warm.) Need some help with your studies and don’t have the support or technology at home? Go to the library and ask the librarian……
Getting the idea?
We need to shake off the idea that all libraries are fit for is to borrow a book. Right from their inception that is not what libraries were for – they were for educating the people and providing information for those who would not have otherwise had access to it. I’m guessing that not all of the political parties are that keen on providing information to the masses and educating adults for free, because I can’t think of any other reason why they would not be supporting libraries and the professionals who run them.
This is not an old fashioned or twee idea of protecting an antiquated institution, but rather a 21st century idea to ensure that each and every community has access to the information it needs. Look at what we’ve done in our imagined community and see the bigger picture. The mother now has a place for her child in school, thus saving money and time for local authorities and for the school board. The couple have found support for their elderly parents and this means that they are able to stay in their home for a while longer thus saving the social services tens of thousands of pounds. The virtually housebound elderly lady now has visitors and is less isolated and has a winter fuel payment and is less likely to succumb to illness associated with age and cold. The young couple feel more engaged in their community and are more likely to contribute to it and to stay within it. The visually impaired man is now able to function in his community again and is less likely to have to rely on expensive care services.
Most of these people have also borrowed books (or audio books, or dvds, or cds, or leaflets….) but that’s not why they went there in the first place. They went there because they needed answers to questions that they did not know how to ask. The snobby response to this would be “they can look it up on the internet can’t they?” Can they? What if you live in a rural community where you don’t have internet access or phone signal? What if you don’t know exactly what question to ask? What if you do ask the internet, and it gives you a million hits and you don’t know which one to trust?
This is what libraries are for, and what professional librarians are for. It is monumentally short-sighted to cut away one of the most important services in a community without ever having a clear picture of what they do in the first place, but that is exactly what is happening all over the country. Librarians are being replaced with inexperienced volunteers who, with the best will in the world, will never be able to provide the service that a trained professional can. Libraries are either being closed or their hours are cut so that they are only able to provide an erratic and unreliable service. Schools have little or no library provision and more often than not there is no trained professional to support their reading progression. The areas worst hit seem to be the ones that need the library the most; poor areas and ones in rural communities. The Sieghart Report has some valuable ideas in it but none of this will mean anything if the various political parties do not act upon it. Join the campaign for libraries and make sure that you and your family have access to something that will ultimately give you, and your entire community, a better standard of living – a library with a librarian.
A full list of current (2104/2015) public library legislation is available here
For other ideas about campaigning and advocacy, you should also see Speak Up For Libraries. and follow @speakup4libs Many other counties also have powerfully active library campaigns, search twitter and social media for their details and please feel free to share your details in the comments below (note – all comments are moderated and so will not immediately appear)
Article written by Dawn Finch
Vice President CILIP
(@dawnafinch) author and children’s library and literacy consultant.
Footnote – this article is in an updated form, first posted April 2015