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Libraries: In Defence of Public Libraries

A friend of mine recently told me that he wouldn't really mind if all the public libraries in Sheffield were closed. He didn't see this as particularly desirable but, under the circumstances, felt there were more pressing services that needed protecting. It seemed a fair point. Perceived as old-fashioned and obsolete, public libraries are in trouble. From government they face the prospect of huge cuts; from the public, a mixture of weak sympathy and outright contempt. Voices on the right question their usefulness or the necessity of the state to support them, defenders on the left have better things to worry about. Everybody in between acknowledges that the book has had its day and, besides, all our information is on the internet now, right? So with Sheffield Council's recently announced plans to cut the library budget by £1.6 million over the next 2-3 years and National Library Day only last month, it seems like a good time to ask: Do we still want public libraries? And if so, why? Despite a slow decline in national library use since the government started counting in 2005, last year's survey showed that 39% of adults had used a library in the 12 months to June [1]. Nationally, groups more likely to use a library service include those out of work (42% in comparison to 37%) and adults from black and ethnic minority groups, whose library usage was 47% as opposed to 38% of those from white backgrounds. This is to say nothing of the other huge group of library users: children. 73% of five to 15 year olds surveyed by the government had used a library in the previous year. Similar statistics are not available for Sheffield, but in 2011-12 there were 2,338,634 recorded library visits, the equivalent of almost four visits per person per year [2]. Given that not everyone goes to the library, what you're left with is a sizeable and active segment of the Sheffield population regularly using the service. So much for the statistics. But what do these 39% of the nation's library-going adults and 73% of children do once inside? The internet is a big draw for many. It is easy to think of online access as ubiquitous. It isn't. Using data from the Office of National Statistics, the E-Learning Foundation recently reported that a third of children living in households comprising the poorest 10% do not have access to the internet at home [3]. Similarly, with government services increasingly being conducted online, there is a danger that without libraries, councils and government will be unable to assist the very people they should be trying to help: the disadvantaged and disengaged. In Sheffield, usage of the libraries' People's Network has increased over the years and shows no sign of peaking. Some argue that this uptake of computers renders libraries themselves redundant, but this ignores the question of access. It sounds obvious, but in order to use the internet, you need a computer and a connection. Many library users clearly do not, hence a visit to their local branch. But once you've got your computer, you also need to know how to use one. Libraries offer assistance both via adhoc help from staff and through more thorough training courses coordinated by the library service. Anyone who has tried to find a free computer in a Sheffield Council Library at the most popular times will know that the service is well used to the point of saturation. In short, most libraries need more computers, not less. Once you've got your information, what do you do with it? Printing commercially will set you back two or three pounds simply to open a USB stick. Library printing only costs 10p per page. Or maybe you want to scan something. Or fax (yes, it does still happen). Or photocopy. All are provided at minimum cost to the user. Then, of course, there are the books. So long as copyright retains its legal force, there will always be a large amount of restricted content, much of it bound between covers. If you have children, can you afford the constant stream of expensive and short-lived picture and story books? If you have babies and toddlers, where can you get a free book starter pack and attend child reading groups? Where can school classes go on a regular basis to collect books the children do not have at home? Despite the recent technologies, children still love books and even the most middle-class taxpayers struggle to pay for material that kids grow out of almost as fast as their clothes. At the other end of the spectrum, if your eyesight is declining, where can you find large print material? Or if English is not your first language, where can you go to find material to learn? With Blockbuster in administration, where can you get the latest DVDs at a reasonable price? Want to set up a reading group? Specially selected book sets are available. Fancy the latest prize-winning novel? Come on down. Housebound? Don't worry - we'll come to you. Then there are the activities for school classes, children's groups, and the library's role as a community hub. In Walkley Library recently they had 41 babies in for Baby Time, a display about the local Walkley history project, a food bank collection container, and on Sundays the building is used by a local church. City wide, Sheffield Libraries are hosting the Read Regional events, a campaign that connects "regional" writers to new readers and holds all manner of events in the process. They also host a number of Off the Shelf events and throughout the year you could attend evenings as diverse as "meet the author" events and self-defence classes. Then there are the buildings themselves. Outside of religious institutions, public libraries are one of the few places in our cities where you can still go and spend time without spending money. No-one is going to sell you a coffee or insurance or Sky TV. They are one of the last physical arguments that such a thing as public space exists and is important. The recent consultation by the Council asked Sheffield residents what they wanted from their library service. It lasted eight weeks and was completed by 6,037 people. It is not clear how much it cost. 'The Number of Local Libraries' came second in the list of respondents' priorities, just below 'the range of services and materials', and yet the Council has decided to cut the number of funded branch libraries in half. To fill the gap, they have asked voluntary community groups to come forward. In principle, this seems like a sensible idea. In practice, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Will volunteers replace all paid staff? Will they take over the running of the building? Where will the new materials budget come from? Will libraries in Sheffield be networked as they currently are? How representative will these community groups be? Leeds Council, who conducted a similar review (and who have since closed 13 libraries) concluded that 'volunteers taking over the library has been trialled with some limited success in some rural authorities, however they cite significant difficulties in maintaining opening hours due to the very nature of the basis for volunteering. Indeed one authority that trialled handing a library over to volunteers had to close it after six months' [4]. Volunteering is an interesting notion and could even strengthen a library's position in its community, but without resources and direction, the plan seems destined to flounder. Sheffield Central Library was built in the midst of our last great economic collapse. In 1934 it was the first public library in Yorkshire and only the 11th in the country. Even in its novelty it was replacing the Sheffield Mechanic's Institute, one of a network of organisations created to extend access to information and learning. A lot has changed since the laying of the Portland Stone on Surrey Street, but the basics have not. Information is not free. In different ways and for different people, it can be prohibitive. Far from perfect, but further still from obsolete, public libraries provide a much valued and much needed service in our communities. It now seems certain that in the coming months the library budget will be cut severely. We should at least know what we are losing. )

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