Over the last six years, almost 350 libraries in the UK have been forced to close because of drastic cuts to local authority spending. These closures have resulted in nearly 8,000 jobs losses and the deterioration of one of the last remaining freely accessible community spaces in the country.
The surviving libraries aren't just about books any longer, but a whole range of community services, from homework clubs to résumé advice sessions. Many also offer free access to the internet, a blessing for those who don't have access to WiFi at home as it turns the humble library into a multi-functioning office.
Apart from once having to console my sister after she sat down at a library computer on a chair that was soaked in piss, my own experiences with public libraries have been extremely positive. My mom was a librarian, so I spent most of my childhood in libraries, learning to love their potential for imagination and knowledge.
I went down to my local library in London to meet the people who use them today and to figure out what place libraries have in the modern world.
Fatumata, 18: "My distractions disappear here"
At first, I met a lot of college students who used it as a place to study for their exams. Fatumata, who is revising for her English literature exams in May, only recently started to use this particular library. "I used to go to another library, but lately there's been a group of girls who go there that just giggle all the time, and I couldn't get my work done."
Fatumata has used this quieter revision venue to her advantage. "The library is a great part of the community, especially for young people who find it hard to study at home. A lot of us have a lot of siblings, and it can be very distracting sometimes. Whereas when I come to the library all my distractions disappear."
Fatumata says the library is responsible for her passing her exams. "The first time I did my AS exams I failed because I wasn't going to the library very often. When I re-took my exams, I went to the library every day, and I passed."
Sebastian, 27: "I organize meetings here; there are good communal spaces"
Sebastian was using the library because he doesn't have access to a printer at home and had to print something. (Who owns a printer these days?) He was also pretty positive about his local library. "It's a great environment to work in," he said. "I'm a freelance producer, so I organize meetings here; there are good communal spaces and a small cafe that are perfect for them."
Nirayo, 36: "I've come here to improve my English"
Nirayo moved to the UK from Eritrea a year ago and has a very specific reason for coming to the library. "I've just started coming here to get books to improve my English," he told me, while flicking through the pages of his newly borrowed textbook.
"I'm definitely going to stay here to learn. It's such a nice building—I've never seen anything like this before."
A lot of libraries in inner-city areas offer free help with learning English. At Shoreditch library in London, there is a coffee morning every Tuesday that offers advice on learning the language.
The majority of people I met saw free internet access as the biggest draw to the library. David, who is currently jobless, comes to the library daily. "Access to a computer is vital for people like me. Universal Jobmatch [the government's job vacancies database] has now moved online, so I need to come here every day to look for work—the job center is always rammed."
Rosina, 81: "It lets you use your imagination"
Internet access and printing facilities have changed libraries into places that are no longer used to simply borrow books. In fact, the number of people who borrow from libraries has fallen in almost every area of England over the last two years. So I was pleasantly surprised when I met big-time borrowers Rosina and Anna.
Rosina, who is now retired, has been using public libraries since she was nine years old. When I met her, she was visiting the library to return a set of books and pick out some new ones—a routine she does once a fortnight.
"I think it's a great part of the community because it gets children reading; I think its essential for all children to read, because it gets your mind working and lets you use your imagination."
"There is something wonderful about having a physical copy of a book," Rosina said. "Every time someone says they are going to buy me a Kindle, I hit that person over the head."
Anna, 7: "I go to the library because I want to learn"
Elementary school pupil Anna said, "I go to the library because I really want to learn," while clenching an armful of books. She was with her mother, Caitlin. "I'm not very good at poetry, but I've borrowed a book about poems now, so I will get better at it," she explained.
Anna really was obsessed with the library and looked absolutely horrified when I asked her what she would do if it were no longer there.
But however popular local libraries may be with the community, they are entirely publicly funded, and as government cuts increase, the number of libraries will diminish. Next year another 111 libraries are due to close across the UK.
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