Earlier this week the BBC ran a series of stories on the state of the nation’s libraries. Based on a the results of a series of FOI requests, the BBC found that over 340 libraries have closed since 2010, resulting in almost 8,000 job losses.
My own local authority, Sefton, has closed half of its libraries over the same period. My nearest branch, a fine old Carnegie Library, closed its doors a couple of years ago, despite election promises by local Labour councillors to keep it open!
I can’t help but think that libraries are the victims of gesture politics. After all, library closures are big news. Too often local authorities, particularly Labour led Councils, seem to be closing libraries in order to draw attention to cuts in funding from Westminster.
Libraries are too important to be allowed to die. They play a hugely important role in the educational and cultural lives of our communities. There are plenty of examples across the UK where libraries are thriving thanks to some innovative thinking.
The Mitchell Library in Glasgow hosts the annual Aye Write festival which attracts big name authors from across the globe. Manchester.Central Library re-opened in 2014 after a £50 million facelift and now includes a range of facilities, including a media lounge and BFI Mediatheque. Liverpool’s Central Library has also benefited from a recent makeover, reopening in 2013. It now hosts a programme of activities which includes coding classes for children and weekly entrepreneurial advice sessions for the business community.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the name “library” comes from the Latin word Liber which means “free”. The original purpose of libraries was to give ordinary people access to books which they may not be able to afford to buy. With even an ordinary paperback now costing the best part of £10, that still applies today. But, as Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and many other places are showing, libraries can also be about much more than lending books.
Politicians, both local and national, need to stop using libraries as a political football and instead realise the potential which they have to re-energise our communities.