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TSS: The State of UK Libraries

In all honesty, I meant to write this post yesterday for #savelibraries day. Unfortunately, time got away from me, but I thought it was still important to write about how things are in this country, and why libraries are regarded as something that can easily be forgotten (in my opinion). I’ve written similar opinions on others’ blogs, but I thought it was time to finally put them on my own.

Libraries in the UK are being closed down now, part of many, many governmental ‘budget cuts’ that, to me, seem mostly designed to make life harder for poor people and easier for rich people. It’s the way it goes. But, as a reasonably well-off person these days, libraries are my main concern. Because I can afford to buy books, but I know others can’t. I know my parents couldn’t satisfy my insatiable need to read with buying (at least part of why I’ve read some of my childhood books 10+ times) and I’m pretty sure that today’s parents will struggle just as much. Literacy should be encouraged; as we watch our countries slide down in intelligence, as even schools start to go downhill, it seems basic literacy should be encouraged more than anything. I proofread others’ writing; I know just how bad at least some schools here are at teaching students how to write. I’m convinced that reading voraciously helps immensely with not only writing but a vast amount of skills that are simply necessary for modern day life.

So why are libraries failing and being cut as unnecessary? I have a few reasons to postulate:

1. Kids don’t read. Some do, yes, but their parents don’t read. Reading in our modern day lives has become a chore. The people I know in real life who do read don’t use the library. At all. But kids need guidance to learn what they like to read. While teachers should take this on, I firmly believe librarians can also play a huge part in this. My library here has programmes for kids to do just this. Without them, their resources are more limited. I see no programmes planned to replace those of closed libraries.

2. Libraries can actually cost money for borrowers. In my old library system, it cost 50p to reserve a new book. Everyone who paid their 50p could read the book before the rest of us. It also cost 50p or more to reserve a book in a different library in the system, and more than that to borrow a CD or DVD. I understand that they’re just trying to raise money, but surely charging for a borrowed book is not the way to encourage this. Especially with point number 3.

3. Charity shops are everywhere. And while their mission is to do good for various suffering people and animals across the country, it certainly doesn’t help libraries (or bookstores) that they sell books for 50p or £1. Some charity shops dare to charge £2.50-£4, but these are less popular than the former. If you can buy a book for the same amount of money it costs you to borrow it for 3 weeks, why bother with borrowing? Why risk it being overdue? If you buy it in a charity shop, you own it, and you can pat yourself on the back for donating money to good causes. I know I’ve done it, because it is a good thing, but it doesn’t help my main concern here.

4. Books in the UK are pretty cheap in general. Most paperbacks I buy new online are £5 or less, with free shipping. I buy the occasional hardcover for around £10. If I had a bricks-and-mortar shop to support locally, they’d still only cost about £8. I can go to Tesco, my local supermarket, right now and get two books for that price. It’s not the same difference in the US, where most paperbacks are now trade paperbacks and cost $10-15. That’s a bigger savings than £5. I can afford to buy more books new, so I do. I still use the library, but I buy the books they don’t have, since there is no request system in place for the purchase of new books.

There is simply less surface cause for British people to need the library – not if they don’t read particularly often – because books aren’t that expensive and quite often library charges cancel out the benefits of borrowing a book for nothing. But that doesn’t mean libraries should be closed. They’re essential to communities, offering services for both children and adults that won’t be replaced. I was thrilled to see a library in Doncaster featured on the BBC yesterday due to all the people that were protesting by checking out books. But it’s important to remember not to support your library on just one day. Support them regularly, and we can teach the government that they are something we genuinely need, that can’t just be ‘cut’.

ETA: Nymeth wrote an incredible post elaborating in much clearer detail on why libraries are important.

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12 comments to TSS: The State of UK Libraries

  • Like you say in your final paragraph, libraries are about SO much more than books and reading. It’s certainly easy to have access to books very cheaply here even without libraries, but nothing replaces the other roles they play in a community.

    All these cuts give me the exact same impression as you :S I don’t often talk about these things because in many ways I feel like an outsider who doesn’t have the “right” to have an opinion on what’s going on here (funnily I’d NEVER think this of a foreign person in my own country, but this is how it goes), but I know that your blog is a safe space where I can speak. Having grown up somewhere without a tradition of public libraries, and not having had access to one at all until the age of 18, it baffles me to see how much is being taken for granted.
    Nymeth´s last post …Library Day of Action

  • I agree so much with both of you, and especially as a foreigner living here I don’t often feel like I have any course of action for these opinions (can’t vote…and the nearest library protest/read-in/what have you was on the Isle of Wight for me – too far). It’s also so interesting to see the difference with my local library, which is a big Discovery Centre in a reasonably well-off and rather conservative area. I’m there probably three to four times a month, and not just because of the books – I take a zumba and a salsa dance class there, sometimes attend lectures too. We’re signing up (and yes, paying, which I don’t mind) for their “movie club” to check out unlimited dvds each year. I order in books for 50p and am happy to do it since I know that money is needed (and books in charity shops here all cost around 3.00). I don’t have an income to buy books, even at reduced prices. That 50p is ok by me when it comes to getting to read something that I really want to, as opposed to purchasing it for 5-25.00. The library here is also abuzz with activity every time I’m there, and not just the “kids on internet” as people grouse – people reading, browsing books, having coffee in the cafe, meeting friends, attending knitting workshops, etc. It looks like such a success story to me – truly a community centre that’s built around books.

    The really conservative element seems to think that a library should only be about books. That’s it. Having music or movies or internet or god forbid, anything that isn’t a book is anathema. I have to wonder 1. what decade they’re living in, and 2. if they’ve ever been to a really successful library like mine. Of course the expansion into multi-media means a lot more work for library staff, so I wonder what the take on that end is? Most younger librarians I know embrace that as it’s just a part of life these days, but I’ve never thought about that logistically.

    Anyway, thanks for the post and the space for me to sort out my really, really long thoughts.
    Kate´s last post …Locus Focus- A parlor- a disappointment

  • Meghan

    Kate – I paid the 50p too for reserved books, though not for the new releases. Many times. It was for something I cared about, but I somehow don’t think others are willing to do that. And I wish my library had as much as yours does! Mine is rather tiny. It does have community events, especially for children, but very few CDs or DVDs. I wonder if the difference in prices is down to economic circumstances – I’ve never lived in a wealthy area, so I thought charity shop prices were the same everywhere!

    And to both of you, I often feel I don’t have a voice either, because I’m a foreigner as well. But I’m outspoken enough, at least on the internet and with people I actually know in real life, to voice my opinion where I can. My husband doesn’t vote and it drives me insane, so I try to make up for it. I’m paying taxes, so I might as well say it somewhere. :)

  • It’s so sad to see libraries all over the world suffering in these economic times. Our politicians just don’t get it – libraries offer so much more than the books they lend. I was a voracious reader as a child, and my school librarian was the one person (outside of my parents) who valued and encouraged it. She made me feel special and every kid needs to feel like that.

  • I live in California, and our libraries are suffering too. The powers that be never seem to think that libraries are important at all–maybe because they can afford to buy all the books they want and get the information they need? But you’re right, they’re very important. Everyone should be able to find out the things they need to know; in a democracy where everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, that should not be something that requires an income. Everyone should be able to educate themselves regardless of income. Everyone should be able to scrutinize the government. That is what libraries are for, and so I believe that libraries are an important part of a free and educated society.

  • Dangermom, I totally agree – at the very heart of it, I really believe that libraries are the essence of the democratization of information, something with which I wholeheartedly agree. Those who probably most need the services offered by libraries are the ones who will take this hit the most, and I do think there’s a lack of perspective when politicians say “people can just go online and learn things and read things,” since not everyone can afford internet, can they?

    Meghan, I’m in Winchester which is like little London and just as expensive. Rents are high, votes are (generally) conservative, and there’s a lot of money around. Although I did – just today! – finally find a charity shop with 50p paperbacks! It’s a mile away…
    Kate´s last post …Locus Focus- A parlor- a disappointment

  • I’m also in California and have been for decades. Back in the late 1970s/early 1980’s libraries went through massive cuts, post prop 13. But people really rallied behind them, demanded their funding be restored and that they be kept open. Since then our libraries face the same cuts all agencies do, but I don’t think anyone in our govt. would dare suggest closing any of them.

    But they’re not primarily about books anymore either. They all have so many community functions in them and have such strong focus on children that even non-readers used them. I think their main function these days is to provide computer and internet access to people who couldn’t afford it otherwise. They’ve still got plenty of books, mind you. But they do so much else, too.

  • Somehow I’ve gotten the impression, which might be incorrect, that libraries have never been as important in the UK as they are in the US. I’m the only person in my family who ever uses the library, but I use the heck out of it. And you’re right, libraries are about so much more than books.

    I never went into an UK library while I was in Europe, but I did use the public library in France. I was really impressed with it–the town was so small they didn’t even have a bookstore, but they had a kick-ass library that was full of people every single day.

  • I think you explain exactly why libraries are failing. It is such a shame, but I don’t think the UK is doing a very good job of keeping up with changing times. I spend a lot of money in my library (ordering books from neighbouring branches) but it does get quite expensive and I know most people wouldn’t want to do this. It is far easier to just find a secondhand book without the worry of fines and rushing to read it.

    I do think libraries are very important for children, but they don’t seem to do a very good job at catering for them. I hope that they will be able to concentrate on improving them now.
    Jackie (Farm Lane Books)´s last post …Caroline – Cornelius Medvei

  • There are massive cuts to the libraries in my area as well, but not as bad as what is happening over there. I think the points you make are very valid, and the biggest concern that I see with all these library funding cuts is that by closing and cutting funding, the government is showing it’s people that reading is not important, and that libraries are something we can do without. This is simply not the case! It really irks me that the first place a budget cut comes into play is at the local library. It is even bad at the libraries in the school. My daughter came home the other day and told me that the school hadn’t bought new books for the last two school years! Can you imagine that? With my kids being big readers, they have exhausted the school’s stacks, and there is nothing left for them to read. Now I can afford to buy them new books, which I do frequently, but it’s sad to me that this situation is even taking place.
    zibilee´s last post …CLEO- The Cat Who Mended a Family by Helen Brown — 272 pgs

  • Having watched Labour close public swimming baths, then dare to jump all over kids for being obese, I’m super worried about this and the kind of backlash against lack of intelligence we’re going to see now. Libraries are so important, especially in a society where even if you’re middle class you can lose your job and have trouble finding a new one.