Library closures

Posted March 30, 2016 by Nicky in General / 6 Comments

The topic keeps going round on Twitter in these days of cuts and cuts and more cuts to public funded institutions, including libraries. It’s a pretty emotive subject, for those who care — and those who don’t often don’t know that libraries can be a social link, a place to get internet connectivity, a place to do work quietly, to get information about all kinds of topics… as well as the traditional books and resources. I can’t currently think of a library that doesn’t serve at least more than one purpose, whether it be children’s activities or community information. When I lived in Cardiff, they’d just gutted the brand new building and replaced a whole floor with other services to do with benefits and taxes.

Of course, these are all valuable services to the community, and of course libraries have to evolve to stay useful, so I can’t really argue against the Advice Hub in Cardiff Library or Caerphilly Library’s Customer Service Centre. And e-services like borrowing ebooks and audiobooks are also awesome. But libraries are valuable as a place to browse and discover new things, too — as a repository of books you might never think to pick up for yourself. I know I’m not the only one who has started reading some awesome authors and series via library books: Georgette Heyer, Laini Taylor, Sarah J. Maas, John Scalzi… And now I buy the books new, but I would probably never have picked them up if I didn’t get a chance to try them first.

I did also see a poisonous thing going round recently where authors (mostly self-published, I noticed) were complaining that libraries stole their revenue. Well, no, they don’t: they pay for the copy of the book they have, and it’s a finite resource which actually opens up opportunities for authors to reach new readers. In the UK at least, authors receive revenue from library loans via the Public Lending Right.

That’s a tangent, though: the thing is, libraries are important, and trained librarians are important. I was a volunteer for and later on the committee of a community library which had been running for about fifteen years. That’s actually pretty long-lived for such a library, as they often fail due to lack of interest. It’s the Tory Big Society dream: the community comes together to protect and maintain a resource.

Except… we didn’t have much by way of funds. We didn’t have much by way of expertise. Our books were mostly donated by regulars who had already read the books they donated. We had to deal with the upkeep of the building, with space issues, and of course we’d have to get rid of books in bad condition. Until I was on the committee, there was no readily searchable database, and books are still checked in and out by hand (meaning it’s difficult to track them down, and easy for them to go missing). It’s amazing that the library lasted so long on its own, and it’s a testament to the local community’s passion and pride in it that it was a social hub, with classes and events and participation in local life.

But. There may have been one or two volunteers with proper library training, but we were all volunteers. So if someone came in looking for help, the quality of the help they received would strongly depend on whether the volunteer that day knew the proper processes or how to find the information or whatever else. Everyone did the best they could, but without training and resources, our little library was no substitute for a properly funded and equipped library.

So yeah, maybe making libraries into local hubs offering more than just books is a great idea. But I can assure you both that the demand is there for the books, and that the proposed volunteer-run libraries are no real replacement.

If you have a local library, protect it. It’s worth it.

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6 responses to “Library closures

  1. It is a shame that public libraries are receiving less and less funding. But it’s also true a lot of its lending services have shifted online and let’s face it, more and more people are also not relying on these community institutions for social activities anymore, as the internet has changed the way people connect with each other. As an avid reader obviously I care about the future of our libraries, but at the same time I understand the struggle to remain relevant in the eyes of a new generation in this changing world. I hope more folks will see all the good they do.

    • I really disagree with that premise. Caerphilly Library, for example, has a room set aside with teen books, some chairs and so on, and every day as soon as school is over, it’s packed. There’s a job search group at least once a week that was always well attended, a knitting group, a Welsh conversation group, and lots of events for kids, etc. And this isn’t a university area or something — it’s a town in the Rhymney valley that’s a tourist destination because of the castle, and not much else. I might bemoan the fact that it was never quite quiet when I wanted to study, but it was definitely still a social nexus, and not even primarily for the elderly. Most often, I think, for those without much by way of means of their own, which is another reason to protect libraries — they serve the vulnerable.

      (A community library is a different kettle of fish, since obviously the community has to be engaged in the first place for it to be running at all. Needless to say, there was always someone popping in for a chat. The population also skewed somewhat to the elderly, so though most people I knew were online and knew how to use computers, they didn’t use them socially.)

  2. Mianaai

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in my local library and *not* had it packed with people! The reading and workspaces are always full, and the private rooms for study groups and tutoring are a really valuable service. Not to mention all the important services like internet for low-income job hunters, etc. I think that the solution to any library with dwindling usership is to *improve* it, not close it! A library that is convenient to use for patrons and matches their needs is much more likely to be actively used than an underfunded library that can’t properly provide resources to the community.
    All the libraries in my county have banded together to form a single library system, with a convenient online catalog including hold and renewal systems – as a result, I can get nearly any book I want, generally within a week of placing a hold. Even if I can’t find what I want within the system, I can almost always get it from another state library for free via interlibrary loan. Having access to such a great library has made me read more, and read a wider variety of books, since there’s no financial incentive to only select books I know I’ll like beforehand. Not to mention, libraries help authors by reducing book piracy!

    • Yeah, exactly, re: improvement. And not by totally changing its purpose, though adding in new functions (like the Advice Hub in Cardiff) is a good idea too. Libraries do have to adapt. But yeesh, we still need the books!

  3. I don’t think your post is badly timed, Nikki. Your final statement says it all!

    “If you have a local library, protect it. It’s worth it.”

    I live in a community with access to 3 libraries that are networked together, but each one still relies on their city funding. One of the libraries has had to cut their hours (and jobs) because the vote to increase funding this past November failed. My town has people decidedly against a new library despite increased traffic and circulation. It’s frustrating as a library patron myself to see others who don’t understand the importance of libraries in our communities. It’s more than just books!
    Terri M. recently posted…A Love Letter to My Local LibraryMy Profile

    • It’s definitely a lot more than just books! I was super excited to be part of contributing to and guiding a library; they have some pretty exciting developments like a plan to integrate with the local interlibrary loan system, and that’s going to be so good for them. But I wish people would protect the funding to libraries in the first place — community libraries are great, but they have their limitations.

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