I’m very pleased to share E.L. Lindley’s perceptive reflections on libraries past and present. Over to you, E.L. and thank you very much for taking the time to write this post…..
I’m guessing that for most of us who are avid readers and writers, libraries have played a significant part in our lives. I know, for me, libraries were a massive part of my childhood and student years as both a treasure trove, filled to the brim with wonderful finds and a place of quiet sanctuary in which to study. The idea then that, due to government cuts in funding libraries are being shut down in increasing numbers, fills me with a sense of outrage. Is it a situation more complex than it first appears however?
I suppose even though I was born in 1962, I consider myself a child of the 70s. It was the 70s, after all, when I was old enough to have my first taste of independence and one of the places I liked to visit was the local library. Ironically, during the late 70s and early 80s the economy wasn’t booming but, during that particular economic recession, the arts seem to flourish rather than be sacrificed at the altar of tightening our belts. Libraries were thriving and often the central focus of communities.
During my childhood, books were seen as something of a luxury and, although we would be given them as gifts for birthdays and Christmas, most of what I read came via the library. Given that it wasn’t unusual for me to get through a couple of books a week; I spent a lot of time haunting those big wooden shelves. I discovered a wide range of beloved authors who I wouldn’t have otherwise read from John Steinbeck to Alice Hoffman and everything in between. Later on, as I revised for O-levels and A-levels, I would raid the archives for past papers and, in that beautiful silence, put myself through my academic paces.
Libraries then, for me, have always represented places of peace and quiet. I have to confess, however, over the years I visited them less and less. Once I started work and became financially independent, I began to buy books rather than borrow them and, having my own home, meant I no longer needed a bolthole from a noisy family or irritating housemates. The arrival of the Internet seemed to be the final nail in the coffin because then I didn’t even need to use the library for research.
Sometimes, over the years, I would venture in for old time’s sake and I’m one of those people who would be scandalised by the way libraries had morphed from the quiet places of my childhood into glorified children’s play areas, complete with bean bags and screeching toddlers. Not to mention the fact that in these modern libraries there were far more computers than books. Libraries, over the years, had changed into something I barely recognised – annexes for job centres and places where young mums meet for coffee while their children play. Although I couldn’t really complain, as an occasional library visitor, I didn’t like it one little bit. I wanted proper, old-fashioned libraries back.
That all changed, however, with the onset of library closures. Hub libraries, which are essentially the large central libraries, were to remain open but smaller community libraries were facing the chop. I suddenly realised that for a lot of people, like the unemployed and young mums, the library might be the last bastion of any sense of community. After all, traditional community centres, catering to all members of the local area from Brownies to pensioners, are long gone so could we really afford to lose libraries as well.
When it became obvious that no amount of protesting was going to persuade the council to ‘leave our libraries alone’, I became one of many volunteers who stepped forward to help run community funded libraries. At the same time, I began asking around to get a sense of other people’s library experiences. Most of my friends, like me hadn’t use libraries for years whilst most kids had never even set foot in one. It became clear that, sad as it may be, libraries as we used to know them are no longer relevant in our modern, technology-based society. The rhetoric coming from the council in the run-up to the library closures was ‘use them or lose them’ and, much as I am loath to admit it, people just didn’t use them.
In the new reality of community run libraries then, what lies ahead? I’m not too sure. I’ve only been a few times so far in my role as volunteer and frankly, once the grand opening day fanfare disappeared, the library where I’m helping out is not well used. Plans are afoot to find ways of getting the community back into the library and, during all of the meetings and surveys that have taken place, the idea of the library as a place of books and reading has not featured high on the agenda. Maybe it’s time for me to let go of my notion of libraries as places of quiet calm and hand the reins over to a new generation to do with them as they will. After all, it is, ‘use them or lose them’.