Aran Ward Sell | 20 March 2017.
In a recent Inciting Sparks article, Tess Goodman writes that libraries are hubs of intellectual community. ‘In libraries,’ she writes, people ‘find anchors on the great sea they must navigate.’ Goodman’s article concludes: ‘P.S. We all need books. Support your local library.’ The article you’re reading might be considered a regretful postscript to this postscript:
P.P.S. Public libraries in the UK are dying.
Rick Rylance, former AHRC chief executive, recently called public library cuts a ‘terrible, slow-motion tragedy’ resulting from a decade’s worth of cuts being passed from central government to local authorities.
This tragedy is underway in Edinburgh, and accelerating. I worked for Leith Library, pictured above, from 2013 to 2015. During this period, library hours were cut citywide. In February 2017, despite an unexpected £10m budget increase, and Council Tax increases to ‘protect council services‘, hours were cut further. Vulnerable people depend on these libraries. I know, I worked with them.
In Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, the title character needs to apply online for unemployment benefit, having been ruled medically unfit for work. He’s an aging carpenter who doesn’t own or use a computer and at Newcastle City Library, needs someone to help him. The overworked library adviser simply points him towards a vacant machine. Daniel, clueless, tries rubbing the mouse against the screen.
The mouse-on-the-screen is a sight gag. Every other part of the scene rings true. Welfare applications are online-only. If people don’t have computers, the job centre sends them to the library. Library advisers aren’t trained to apply for Job Seeker’s Allowance or Personal Independence Payment. But if nobody helps, it never gets done. So in between shelving books, processing bus pass renewals and selling biodegradable waste bags, you try to find five minutes to help Daniel Blake on an achingly slow, crash-prone machine; because he needs you to, so that he can live.
No-one will host Autism-friendly film screenings, or Library Link sessions for elderly citizens, or Bookbug singalongs for babies, or provide the anchors for Goodman’s ‘great sea’, if the libraries die. Cuts will end in death: staff cutbacks create understaffed libraries, which are terrible places to work. I left Leith Library for a job which didn’t mean scratching a living together from inconvenient, stressful short shifts. Full-time staff, with decades of irreplaceable experience, are leaving Edinburgh libraries. Make libraries part-time, unpleasant workplaces, and soon it will be easier just to leave the doors shut.
Richard Lewis, culture convener for Edinburgh Council’s SNP/Labour coalition, told the Evening News that it is too late to reverse library cuts because staff have already taken voluntary redundancy. This is spin. Even if the full-time redundancies cannot be undone, part-time and agency staff across the city are desperate for shifts. Instead, the libraries are cut in accordance with an ‘austerity’ which Labour and the SNP claim to oppose. (Richard Lewis didn’t reply when I politely tweeted him.)
Lewis claims ‘there is no intention whatsoever to close any library’, but some libraries ‘will be combined with community centres and some will be run by local communities’. That’s an awful lot like closure.
Authors defiantly defend libraries. Ray Bradbury says that ‘libraries raised me’. Caitlin Moran writes that ‘a library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival.’ Ali Smith wrote a story collection in support of public libraries. These are just the writers. How many others don’t we hear from? Future scientists joyously checking out piles of children’s non-fiction about space or dinosaurs. Cabbies whose livelihood can be traced back to a dog-eared library DVSA driving test guide. Ex-convicts quietly educating themselves into a second chance in the corner of a public space. Every time the library service contracts, possible universes deflate and disappear.
This should be a golden age for the public library. The United Kingdom is increasingly a ‘gig economy’, comprising ever-increasing freelancers: writers, programmers, designers and publishers with laptops and no fixed workplaces. Public libraries – free, welcoming, with desks, power sockets and the elixir of wi-fi – should be the symbol of the age. Many freelancers are graduates: why not market the public library as a natural continuation of the university library: as the library that you graduate into? Instead, Starbucks is the unchallenged office of the officeless, while the public library – due to underinvestment and understaffing – retains a down-at-heel aura. With more farsighted policy, and sufficient initial investment, urban libraries could perhaps be a net contributor to council budgets. Starbucks runs at a profit. Libraries can sell coffee too.
But Edinburgh turns tail and runs the other way into a pre-literate past. There are few more sure-fire ways to ruin a city’s future than to destroy its public library service. But that, it seems, is what our City of Literature chooses.
Aran is a first-year PhD candidate, studying legacies of Modernism in the contemporary British and Irish novel. He writes and vlogs on www.ReasonsToRemain.co.uk, and in 2016 he co-produced the contemporary dance show Entrails for the Edinburgh Fringe. You can follow him on Twitter @AranWS, or in real life if you’re really sneaky.
Edited by Scheherazade Khan and Matthew Tibble.
Goodman, Tess. ‘Reading as if to Live’. Inciting Sparks. 6 March 2017. https://incitingsparks.org/2017/03/06/reading-as-if-to-live/
I, Daniel Blake. Screenplay by Paul Laverty. Dir. Loach, Ken. Sixteen Films / Why Not / Wild Bunch, 2016. Film.
Rylance, Rick. Q&A, ‘Literature and the Public Good’. 50 George Square, University of Edinburgh. 10th Feb 2017. English Literature seminar.