17.1.11

Who Needs Books, Anyway?

     Well, more specifically who needs access to them? Perhaps, for free, even, in this austere economic climate?

      Not the UK apparently, according to the government's plan to close somewhere in the region of 1,000 libraries to save money and help balance the state books. We all know times are hard and sacrifices are necessary, but hitting libraries is the wrong thing to do, I think. Here's why:




      In tough times, people will borrow books rather than buy them. When pennies are short, you turn to your free public services to fill in the gaps left by your diminished or increasingly stretched income. Of course, that's what they're there for. Having books available to borrow for free means that reading is one pleasure that you, or your children, do not have to curtail or sacrifice should times become hard. If you are unemployed, your local library could actually be the thing to get you back into a job, be it through providing internet access to job sites or helping you to improve or learn new skills that might make you more competitive; or, failing that, it might just a place to go when you have days to fill and no money to spend. In many ways, libraries are true community resources: you can learn new skills, uncover new interests, have a (very quiet) chat with your neighbour and enrich and expand your views of the world just by opening a book. If libraries disappear and you are unable to buy books, how on earth will you access them?

       There is a wider access issue here as well. With the gradual closure of more and more bookshops on the high street, will the only place to access books soon be online? Not everyone has a computer (in fact, for many the only computer access they have is at the local library), so library closures will take books from the hands of those who need them most. Coupled with the abolition of Booktrust, the charity that provides free books for babies and children, will children begin to think of reading as something that can only be done with the limited resources at school or on a computer screen? If they have disadvantaged or disinterested parents, for instance, some children may never experience that startling moment of taking a book off a shelf and finding another world or realising that they are not alone in feeling a particular way. Where will they get their hands on them in a few years' time if libraries close and books are not visible or provided?

       Of course, this will affect literacy standards – perhaps the money saved by closing libraries could be spent in a few years' time on a government initiative to raise the reading and writing standards of the struggling population? Madness. I saw on Twitter this week that several people began suggesting that the government start adding VAT to books and put the money raised back into saving the public library resources of the UK (namely @Luvzi12 and @culture_cuts, but apologies to the ones I haven't seen); it's a tricky one as high street book shops are struggling, but I don't doubt that book lovers would see the wider value of this if the money could be ring-fenced for protecting library and book schemes. After all, this will impact on everyone in 5, 10, 20 years' time when faced with a younger generation with little imagination or affection for reading; but I guess this is coming from the same minds that have uncapped tuition fees and will soon start complaining about the lack of skilled workforce.

Find out if your local library is affected here.

N.B. Bravo to the people of Stony Stratford, nr Milton Keynes, for their clever protest, and good luck to anyone planning anything similar.
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