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Next Tuesday (13 March) sees the Speak up for Libraries lobby in London. If you can go and join in, I’d urge you to do so – this is a chance for library supporters to make a big impression! If (like me) you can’t go, you can still show your support by signing up to support the issue, and writing to your MP to ask them to support the Speak up for Libraries early day motion.
I’ve written to my MP to ask for his support:
Dear Tony Lloyd,
I am writing to ask you to sign Early Day motion 2817, Speak Up For Libraries.
Free public libraries which are open to all are a vital part of the country’s community structure, and deliver huge benefits for education, life-long learning, digital literacy, and community engagement.
They are one of the few free, non-threatening spaces left. You don’t have to subscribe to a particular belief or belong to a particular sector of society to be allowed to use a library.
They’re places where you can go and know you’ll be welcomed, whoever you are, and whatever your reason for being there.
And there are many reasons to go to your public library! As well as large selections of fiction, public libraries provide access to educational material. People can go to their public library to learn how to use a computer, to learn to knit or grow their own veg, to learn another language, or find out more about a disease facing them or a loved one.
Libraries also offer computer access – increasingly vital for accessing goods and services, including local and national government services. Millions of people in the UK don’t have a computer, and couldn’t afford to buy and maintain one. Without computer access at their local library they will end up even more distanced from society.
Libraries and librarians also offer activities and ways to engage with the community. Services for children (such as Rhymetime) are hugely popular, and often over subscribed. Educationalists agree about the importance of engaging children with books and learning at an early age.
Many libraries also offer access to health information, which users may be unable or disinclined to seek elsewhere. Librarians will not judge or gossip. Part of being a professional librarian is adherence to a strict code of ethics*, with the needs of the user and society always at its heart, and they are a trusted profession. Replacing professional or trained library staff with volunteers may erode that trust, and lead to people not getting access to the information they need.
For that is what public libraries are about: connecting people with the information they need. UNESCO define the public library as:
‘the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups’
And access to information is often regarded as a basic human right. Libraries provide non-judgemental, unbiased, democratic access to that information, and librarians will help people find and evaluate the information they really need.
Disinformation, lies, private agendas, and prejudice have no place in the library. Allowing private groups (such as religious or political groups) to run public libraries opens the door to bias in information provision.
We’re asking the government not to allow councils to make hasty and short-sighted decisions about the future of libraries. Free and open-to-all public libraries are vital for an educated, engaged, and healthy populace. Please don’t let them vanish.
For more information on this issue, including stories from many members of the public about what a difference libraries have made to their lives, see independent campaign group Voices for the Library http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/, Speak up for Libraries http://www.speakupforlibraries.org/, and information on the value of libraries from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals http://www.cilip.org.uk/get-involved/advocacy/pages/overviewofadvocacy.aspx.
Thank you for taking the time to read this email, and please do sign early day motion 2817.
*I should clarify: only members of professional organisations (such as CILIP or ARA) are actually subject to their association’s code of ethics. That doesn’t mean that non-members aren’t ethical! But they’re not committed to following a certain code in the same way.
I realised today that although I’ve spent months helping other people to tell their library stories over at Voices for the Library, I’ve never told mine. It’s nothing special – just one more life made a little less ordinary by libraries.
I can’t remember ever not being a member of the library. As a child, Saturday afternoons bounded by mini kickstools and the printed page. As a young adult, away at uni and bereft of my books for the first time, going to Manchester Central Library, and sitting up all night to devour all 8 books in one mammoth gorge.
I met a Childline councillor at a literary event a few years ago, and admitted to her that I was addicted to books. She thought for a moment, and then said that it was the only healthy addiction she’d ever heard of.
She was wrong.
It’s not healthy. Unmanaged, it has all the symptoms of any other addiction. The hunger for the next fix that draws you mind away from everything else. Retreating from friends and family to sequester yourself with the object of your obsession. Staying up late, indulging, and being late and groggy in the morning. Missing school/uni/work altogether for just one more book, one more hit, I have to know what happens…
The one thing that set me apart from other junkies? I never had to steal to feed my habit. I didn’t need to – all the books I could ever want, ever need, were in the library. A whole building full of books, for you to touch and read and take home – do you have any idea how incredible that is? An everyday wonder that, because it is everyday, we have ceased to call wonderful.
Older, my habit under control, but never quite kicked (once a book junkie always a book junkie), I start to cast around for a career. I have a vague feeling that there is more to libraries than just the books, and that – whatever it is – if it’s associated with libraries, it must be pretty darn awesome. I was right.
I looked for a career, and I found a vocation. And I found the very very best thing about libraries. It’s not the books, or the computers, or the community events or the bookclubs or the bounce and rhyme or the safe space or the information on anything you could ever possibly need to know. It’s the librarians. The most competent, dedicated and passionate group of people I’ve ever met. The people who will give all they have defending the right to free, open, impartial access to information to all. The people who make everything else that libraries do possible.
And today, on Save Libraries day, I’m especially proud of them. I’m proud of all the battles they’re fighting for the good of society, and I’m proud of them for the challenges they’re overcoming to do so: the threats from employers, the hostility of councillors, the accusations of selfishness, the hideousness that is online comment forums. And I am immensely proud and privileged to call these people my colleagues, my friends. I usually call myself an information professional, but not today.
Today, I am a librarian.