In the U.K. public lending libraries have a long tradition of use.
Subscription based lending libraries have been around since the time of Jane Austen, although these were mostly used by wealthy and affluent people who could a) read and b) afford the subscription prices.
Subscription libraries became more commonplace for ordinary, working people in the early Twentieth century when companies like Boots ran affordable subscription based library services on the high street.
Libraries where you could borrow books for free were relatively few and far between. Some were attached to institutions like the Co-operative movement, or other philanthropic causes that worked to educate ordinary people and make books available to them, mainly for study purposes.
Libraries run by local councils which were free for everyone to use and which included all kinds of books to borrow, were not introduced in Britain until the Fifties and Sixties when they became part of the labour government’s welfare revolution.
When I was a child, growing up in the Seventies, every town and village, however remote or small, had a library or a mobile library service. One of the great delights of visiting my grandparents in the tiny, Lincolnshire village in which they lived, was going on the library van and helping them to choose new books for the week. It seemed very exotic compared out our mundane visits to a bricks and mortar library.
It would certainly be exotic now, as the mobile library service is all but extinct.
Visiting the library was a regular part of my childhood landscape, and something I have carried into my adult life. I have a house full of books, a kindle full of books, and yet I still visit the library at least once a fortnight, sometimes more, and my children complain if we can’t visit for some reason.
Libraries have changed over the years. My mum tells the story about how the library she regularly visited as a child (which is now just down the road from where I live), was segregated into a children’s library and an adult’s library. She was not allowed to take any books at all from the adult’s library until she reached the correct age (14, I believe), even though, as a voracious reader, she had read all the books in the children’s library several times over.
When I was a child, children’s and adults books were more likely to be housed in the same room, and certainly, adult books were available to take out on a child’s ticket if the child wanted them. I have distinct memories of trying to read Franz Kafka’s The Castle at the age of ten, because it looked like it might be an interesting type of grown up fairy tale.
There was however, still the strong belief that libraries had to be places of silent study and reading. The library was a repository for books in the most pragmatic of senses. You went there to either borrow books to take home, or to stay in the library with and study, and if you were going to study you would not want to be noisy. Silence was the order of the day.
In the intervening years, as books have arguably become less important for people, the decline in the numbers of people visiting libraries means that there has been a considerable change in the look and feel of libraries, as libraries try to attract visitors and keep them borrowing items.
Libraries now offer a whole range of items you can borrow, audio books, films and music as well as books. You can use computers and printers, you can use photocopiers, you can get tourist information, citizen’s advice, and even cups of tea.
Libraries stage events like book clubs, talks, knit and stitch groups, mother and toddler groups and anything and everything which might induce the local community to walk into the local library and use it.
Noise is no longer an issue. Comfortable chairs are provided for reading, as well as chairs and tables for study, and the children’s section of the library is usually splendidly equipped with all manner of wondrous temptation for children from squidgy, stackable furniture to pirate ships, climb aboard trains and dens.
Libraries are trying hard to become both useful and magical places that you need and want to stay in.
I love the fact that libraries are now more user friendly. As a teenager I found librarians quite an intimidating bunch, and certainly in my local library they were more likely to act as if you were a nuisance rather than actively wanting to help you.
All of that has changed for the better, but the reasons for the changes are not so positive.
As the number of people using libraries falls, the library services is one of the first things to be cut when there are money saving exercises in local government to be made. Budgets are being slashed year on year, librarians are being replaced by automated services and in some cases libraries are simply being closed.
Four hundred public libraries are due to be closed in the UK in the next twelve months according to the National Literacy Trust figures.
Four hundred libraries we can ill afford to lose.
The local library in the town where my children’s school is, is under threat of closure.
Figures show that as a nation, our book buying habit is stronger than ever before, publishing, particularly in the area of children’s books is more popular than ever.
This is encouraging, and some argue that we need libraries less because people are obviously buying and owning more books in their homes.
I would argue that libraries need to stay because children’s literacy rates are not growing in line with the number of books being bought and any service that offers both books and help with reading to children is valuable.
In areas where the recession is biting particularly hard, and where people are feeling the effects of cuts in benefits, money is not being spent on books, and nor is it likely to be in the future.
There are still homes where books are few and far between and where children’s books in particular, are non existent.
Even in homes where there are children’s books, are parents really able to go out and buy the latest releases in hardback when a child wants to read them?
Studies show that a child who grows up surrounded by books does better in both education terms and in terms of social mobility.
Studies show that a child who is read to for ten minutes a day, and who has access to books outside of a school environment does better academically than children who do not have these things.
Studies by the World Health Organisation show that a child’s ability to read and be literate is one of the greatest ways of improving their social mobility and ensuring they climb out of the poverty trap.
If a household cannot provide access to books a child wants to read, or story time or even just new books at the rate a voracious reader wants to read them, who will?
Our local library authority currently offers children the right to take out ten books on their library card, which, if brought back within three weeks, will be totally free to take out. If the books are late there is a small fine on children’s books.
Children can also take out audio books for free.
The library also offers workshops, poetry and story time, craft activities, reading schemes, pre school and toddler story times and access to help with reading through the Book Start Scheme which the libraries endorse and administer.
The free lending library is a resource that people should cherish. Don’t discover how valuable it is only when it’s been taken away from you.