Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title ‘Love Your Library’, a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads ; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.
Here, WCN’s Conor McGeown muses on the role of libraries in society, and his daughter’s love for the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library, the country’s busiest library for eight years in a row.
Talking about the importance of saving libraries makes me think of earlier discussions about our similarly endangered record shops. Both tend to bring up images of the thrill of hunting through the stacks for the perfect treasure, the tactile experience of handling physical objects, or the enticing cover art with its hints of the mysteries contained within.
These are warm, nostalgic thoughts, but they also make me a shade uncomfortable. For just as I was lured by the convenience of CDs and later mp3s, so too have I been guilty, like many of my generation, of favouring the armchair ease of cheap Amazon deals and digital formats (or, if I’m being brutally honest , just numbly swishing through the internet with my thumb). I’m still reading, I told myself. That’s the important thing. Right?
Well okay, probably not. But I’m currently making amends by taking my 16 month old daughter to the Millennium Library in Norwich at least twice a week.
You can tell libraries are cool because babies love them, and they haven’t learned to bullshit you yet. At home, my daughter is fascinated by books of all types, so at first I was confused and possibly a bit embarrassed that in this great cathedral of information she preferred instead to joyfully careen about the place with her hands aloft, cheering enthusiastically. She takes books off the shelf, not to read, but to deposit in the drawers of the automatic lending kiosks. She seems to be more engaged in the rituals of the library than the books themselves.
But as I watched her merrily bumble from one section to the next, heralding the friendly staff with upraised arms, stumbling on a fantastic staff-led sing-along in the children’s section, or stubbornly insisting on picking up a huge pile of community information leaflets from one of the rotundas with both of her tiny hands, I suddenly realised: I didn’t spend all those countless hours as a kid in a tiny library in small town Northern Ireland just because I loved books.
In the kid’s section, where you will find me most often these days, there are stacks of colourful books promising to spill the beans on the Vikings, the Mayans, Ancient Egypt, paranormal phenomena and UFOs. There are horror stories, anatomy books, science books, astronomy books and much more. I remember, as a child, hoovering up the information contained in books exactly like these, and it dawns on me that the library was my real school, where I had the freedom and opportunity to learn about whatever I wanted, at my own pace, without censorship by parents or authority figures, and subject only to the weird whims of my own curiosity.
Obviously books are amazing, and a library would be pretty odd without them. But watching my daughter has reminded me that the real treasure is not the books on the racks, it’s the space itself.
Comparison with record shops may suggest that there is no real reason to be concerned. After all, record shops managed to survive and even bounce back, despite our hand-wringing. But does a publicly funded institution enjoy the same resilience as private enterprise? I’m sure there will always be books to buy, but where is the business angle in providing free access to information that generates no advertising clicks, or in providing a space where we can come together to experience culture together at no cost, or where we can educate ourselves as we see fit? Where we can organise to campaign against the very interests that would seek to squeeze a profit out of such activities?
They say that it’s only when we lose something that we realise what we had. But wouldn’t it be great to skip the losing part for once? It might not be so easy to get it back.
Conor McGeown is the Development Manager at Writers’ Centre Norwich. After studying law at Trinity College Dublin, Conor toyed with the idea of pursuing a legal career in London before taking a left turn into fundraising, initially for the cause of animal welfare. A resident of the fine city of Norwich since as far back as early 2014, he is excited to be able to play a part in WCN’s vital work to develop and promote the social and artistic impacts of literature and reading. At home, Conor’s main interests in music, movies and books fight it out for his spare time, the ultimate winner depending on when you ask.