In September 2013, the flagship new Birmingham Library was opened by women’s rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai. Addressing the public at the official opening ceremony, the Nobel Peace Prize winner stated that “a city without a library is like a graveyard”; the conclusion of this project, which cost £189 million and took more than five years to complete, suggested that Birmingham City Council shared this belief. Less than 18 months later, however, the council has announced budget cut proposals which, if approved, would result in the library losing more than half of its workforce, and reduce its opening hours from 70 to 43 hours per week.
It is by no means the only centre to be suffering from such cutbacks. Since 2011, at least 324 of Britain’s libraries have been forced to close, with around 400 others now run by volunteers. In 2014, local authorities across the country, Liverpool, Sheffield and Walsall among them, announced further closures, along with severe cuts to library services and plans to turn existing libraries into ‘hub’ libraries, requiring only minimal staffing. People in some areas have taken action to try and prevent the cutbacks; last November, a petition to stop the closure of the Imperial War Museum library was signed by 1,500 people, and Birmingham City Council will potentially be contacting the British Library in a bid to make Birmingham one of its regional centres. All the same, the general trend is impossible to ignore.
The reasons for this decline can be strongly linked to the ever-increasing influence of the Internet, and in particular to the rising preference for eBooks. Their popularity is understandable: readers can now access an incredible number and variety of books online, more than even the most expansive of libraries can offer; the books are often considerably cheaper to purchase than a physical copy of the same text, with those first published before the introduction of copyright usually available for free; they can be conveniently stored on one tablet; and all of this without the hassle of return dates, renewals, late fees, or, indeed, leaving the house. Even literature students who swear by their love of the smell of old books may find themselves tempted, once they discover they can download the entire reading list for one module onto their Kindle for free, without even having to get out of bed.
Nevertheless, there remains the argument that the benefits of a library extend beyond simply the books on its shelf. For some people, their local library is still a centre of the community. For example, many provide what can be vital support for parents in the form of children’s clubs and activities, which have the added bonus of increasing a child’s access to books, helping them to find stories they’ll like, and thus encouraging them to view reading as something to enjoy, rather than just something you have to do at school; an idea which seems especially significant in the light of Nick Clegg’s recent announcement that if the Liberal Democrats remain in power after May’s general election, they will aim to end childhood illiteracy by 2025.
For other people, libraries symbolise a safe, calm space, where they can go to study, to use a computer if they don’t have one at home, or just for half an hour’s peace and quiet. Anyone who was a fan of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events when they were younger might recall those haunting words carved above the entrance to the V.F.D. library: “The world is quiet here”. Perhaps, then, it isn’t just about what libraries can provide us with; it’s about what they represent.
It seems only appropriate to conclude with the words of J.K. Rowling, in a speech made to Harvard graduates in 2008: “I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp”. For whatever reason, books occupy a space in our culture which is valued far beyond the words that are written on a page; whether you believe libraries are a valuable necessity or an outdated concept, surely it is this which, more than anything, we should be defending.