Sunday, February 13, 2011

Library Crisis in the UK

I've been watching the protests surrounding the enormous cuts in government spending in the UK with a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach. This is not anything to do with the political colour of the UK government - I don't live there so that is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned - and everything to do with the increasingly strident calls in many parts of the world that put a monetary value on government services.

Yes, there was a major financial crisis and many nations are still struggling with the aftermath and governments need to find ways of cutting spending to deal with the situation. That is a given. What is disturbing me is where these cuts are being made.

In the UK among sensible decisions there have been others that, in my opinion, are counter productive. Increasing student fees was one. A nation that encourages higher education is one that in the future will have an educated, innovative society, which will in turn create employment and financial stability. Closing doors to those who cannot afford to pay for education means that many who have the ability will not be able to develop their skills. This is a waste of resources that no nation can justify. What wise government wouldn't want to exploit all the ability its constituents have? Seems counter productive to me.

Another strange decision is the funding cuts to libraries, many of which now face closure. The argument to justify this is confusing. Apparently libraries are expensive and everyone now has access to the internet so libraries are no longer necessary. The flaws in this are obvious. Apart from the fact that everyone does not have access to the internet - not everyone has a computer or can afford internet access - libraries provide services beyond just storing a lot of books. Yes, you can google just about anything. Unfortunately there is no way to be sure of the quality of that information and, in many cases, once you move to research papers and similar sources the information is not free. All you will get is an abstract - if you're lucky - or the title and a few words from the beginning of the paper. If you want to read the whole you will have to pay a fee - so not available to all.

Libraries have librarians - and despite what we see of their work - they do much more than just put books in the right order on the shelves, check out books and collect fines. A good librarian has a wide knowledge of what is on the shelves and where else you can find it if it is not in their library. The internet cannot give this sort of information.

We need libraries - and now more than ever. Libraries are no longer book collections. They stock information in media of many kinds - have done for decades - and they promote reading, one of the most valuable skills anyone can have. My children joined the local library as babies -yes, they were catered for at that age. As three and four year olds they went to Story Time where librarians read to them and gave them activities to do that sprang from the stories. They borrowed books even at that age and had them read to them until they could read them themselves. Now, as adults, they still have enquiring minds. I have to wonder whether this would have been so if they had not been encouraged as young children. The library opened opportunities to them I could never have provided otherwise. Financially it would have been impossible.

Beyond that, libraries provide services to the disabled - large print books for the visually impaired being one area, the elderly - books are taken to those who cannot access the library, and those with limited finances. There is no way I could possibly read the number of books I do if I had to buy them and I'm sure there are many in my position. They also, in many countries, provide an additional income flow to authors, through Public Lending Rights payments. The internet does not and cannot provide these services.

I am truly alarmed at the prospect of a decline in libraries - and it seems that many in the UK are similarly alarmed. They are doing all they can, in a wide range of innovative ways, to draw attention to the problem. You can see some of them here, where poet, Katy Evans-Bush, tells us what libraries mean and have meant to her, and, for an Australian response on the importance of libraries to us all, here, where Tansy Rayner Roberts talks about her local library. I wish the UK protesters luck because it seems to me that this insidious attack is spreading. Everywhere knowledge is, on the one hand, more widely available than ever before but, on the other, being closed off.

I referred in a post a while back to the comment attributed to Winston Churchill during World War II. In an attempt to save money his Finance Minister reputedly suggested that funding to the arts be cut. The response was 'Then what are we fighting for?' In my opinion, this is just as appropriately applied to things like cuts that make knowledge less accessible.


Rosanne Dingli said...

Libraries are community centres that do a lot for young families and the aged. They serve students of all ages, and are an excellent meeting place for schoolchildren. A library is where the knowledge of the world resides, and is a window upon the world's culture, Nature and the interfaces between everything humans get up to. To diminish the importance of libraries is to put a very high obstacle in the way of learning and understanding.

Helen V. said...

It seems quite bizarre to me that anyone would think that libraries were not important but I guess it comes back to the current obsession that everything has a monetary value - which, of course, it doesn't.