With the threat of library closures being all over the news, and this being National Libraries Day, Susan Omand explains why community libraries are still important in modern society...
Have you been to your local library recently? No, I know you know where it is but I asked have you actually been inside the building? What do you mean, you’ve got a computer so you don’t need to?
That seems to be a perception that is growing among today’s society – that libraries and librarians are outdated. Unnecessary. A waste of money even. If this perception continues unchallenged, communities will lose a vital service that has been changing and evolving to meet the needs of the area since the idea of libraries came into existence. Your local library now probably provides services you don’t even know about.
A little bit of personal history about me and libraries. When I was very small, pre-school age, we didn’t have a library building in the village – we had a van! Something the size of a small bus lined with shelves of books pulled into the village square on a Thursday and everybody (and I mean everybody) in the village queued up to change their books, see what was new on offer and generally to meet and have a gossip. And that’s something that libraries still provide – a meeting place and a community focal point. Far from being the dusty, shushy places that academic and reference libraries are, community libraries are noisy and vibrant places. Yes, you can still find quiet places to sit, sometimes even with a coffee, to read the daily paper but you’ll also find the mother and toddler’s group in reading stories and having a singalong. Many’s the time I’ve come out of the library humming The Wheels on the Bus. There's often talks or exhibitions by local writers and artists, giving them an ability to connect with their audience and the public the chance to be inspired by what others are doing. Quite often a community library will also have space available for other meetings too, so you’ll find support groups, reading groups and hobby clubs meeting there, providing a chance for face to face interaction that is less and less evident in this screen based world.
Talking of screens, you’ll also find a range of IT equipment, not just a 5p a sheet photocopier, and classes at the community library for all ages and abilities. Contrary to popular belief NOT everyone instinctively knows how to work a computer and not everyone has internet access at home. I know. Shocking isn’t it? But true. In my mother’s village there are many areas where even a mobile phone signal doesn’t get through and the internet, if anyone does have it, is slow enough to make many modern websites almost unusable, and video streaming impossible, as you have time to make a cup of tea while the screen is loading. So when a superfast link got put into the local library (after they had moaned about the streets being dug up of course) they were beating a path to the library door to use the new facility. So yes you’ll find the Silver Surfers there, the older generation who don’t necessarily want to know how to play the latest game or watch movies but do want to be able to send an email, set up a Skype call to family abroad or find out about how to pay bills online and check information on government websites or “how to” videos on Youtube to try and improve their quality of life.
For job seekers and business start-ups, too, the library is an invaluable place and not just because of the IT equipment that is available. True, the IT availability allows job seekers to check websites, write up CV's and letters and learn basic IT skills that are now essential when applying for almost any kind of job. But the books and information at the library are also an invaluable asset. When I was in the process of starting up my own business I borrowed books a lot on the subject. These were reference books and how to’s that I didn’t want to spend money on because I knew I wouldn’t need them again once I had finished the start up process but they were really helpful and useful at the time as I worked through the recommendations given to me by the librarian. This made wading through the legal processes of registering as self employed, deciding what I legally could and couldn’t do as a business, mastering the art of writing contracts and getting to grips with new, but essential, accountancy processes so much easier.
And that is the other thing that libraries provide that is an absolutely vital service. Librarians. People may not know this but I trained as a librarian, doing a Masters degree in Information Management, and their role in this data overloaded world is essential. You may think that you don’t need the human touch any more when seeking actual useful information in among the myriad of random data that is out there but bear in mind that Google can’t interpret what you want. If you ask the wrong question on Google you'll get the wrong answer. Even if you ask the right question on Google, you get back several hundred thousand answers, the majority of which are irrelevant, false or even downright dangerous, and it is up to you to pick out the “correct” information. In my Information Management course I was trained how to interpret requests, ask the right question and to know where to go to find the most relevant answers. This is maybe why I seem, to some people, to be a bloody knowall – I don’t have a photographic memory but I do know where to find information. But, more than that, librarians can come up with suggestions to help answer your query that you hadn’t even thought of because they can interpret what information it is that you’re actually looking for, even if you’re asking totally the wrong question.
So yes, libraries are about a lot more than books. But they ARE about books and about FREE ACCESS to books. Libraries give you the chance to revisit old favourites, learn something new or take “potluck” on a book without spending any money on it; if you like the cover or the synopsis, give it a go. It won’t cost you anything and you may discover a true gem. Libraries are the place to find books that you need to read but only need once for a specific reason. As I said, I borrowed text and reference books extensively for my business startup and these books would have been £30 or £40 each if I’d had to buy them. Most of all though, libraries allow the next generation to read anything and everything available to them, learning, enquiring, enjoying and engaging with the world around them, their history, their future and their own imaginations. Libraries create people.
Image - National Library Day