I suppose the point I’m making – the thing I learned – about libraries is that they’re not really bricks, mortar and books at all, but spaces created for people who want to learn something: whether that’s the plot of the latest Jilly Cooper or just how other people in their community are thinking and feeling. Perhaps most importantly, they’re one of the only places left people can congregate without feeling pressured to buy something. Communal spaces that aren’t transactional by nature create a different atmosphere, engender a different kind of conversation. Libraries are our secular churches, our indoor parks, where people can find something useful regardless of class, age or how much money is in their bank account.
When I left Newbiggin Hall in 2010, plans to close its doors and replace the building with a much smaller lending space, staffed by supermarket-style self-service machines, was taking shape. This marked the residents out as among the lucky ones: for thousands of other people across the UK, local libraries have gone the ways of pubs and social clubs, bingo halls and youth centres; community hubs that never quite made enough money, replaced by… what exactly? There’s an account I follow on TikTok, run by an elderly man who shares videos of his lunch every day. Each new clip fills up with kind and encouraging comments from younger users. I find this inter-generational warmth heartening, but also sad: we had places for this, and we’ve let so many of them fall away.
But all is not lost. Many libraries not only survive, but thrive. Libraries Week started in 1958 and, like the institutions it celebrates, has seen off plenty of threats in that time – most recently Covid. Over the past 18 months library staff, like many public sector and small business workers, have adapted brilliantly to help keep their local communities together. Between 4-10 October, you can show your support by going to librariesweek.org.uk, using the hashtag #LibrariesWeek or just popping into your local branch. You never know who you might get talking to.
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Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin