Right now, library provision across Scotland is under immense pressure. Every week in Glasgow the results of years of underfunding, knee-jerk cost-cutting measures, and a lack of care for services, buildings, and staff become more and more noticeable within the local libraries. It’s a pattern that’s being replicated all over Scotland and serves to threaten integral parts of communities.
Libraries cater for a diverse crowd made up of life-long devotees such as people seeking free IT access and printing services, and parents keen to develop a love of reading in their children. There are people researching their family tree, borrowing and returning books, studying for qualifications, and applying for jobs.
I spend a lot of time doing my own work in the library too, as it gets me out of the house and away from endless distractions – I’ll happily do housework if I can use it as an excuse to get out of writing at home. Usually, I take my laptop with me but, if I don’t, I can easily access my files from one of the free-to-use computers.
In fact, I can’t remember a time when my local library wasn’t a place I loved and went to regularly.
Libraries have always been an essential cornerstone for local communities
As a child in the seventies, I went with my mum to our tiny library in Cumbernauld. While she sought out the latest Beryl Bainbridge, I devoured every adventure of The Famous Five and time-travelled courtesy of Carrie’s War. The characters and settings in books let me imagine lives that weren’t like my own – that’s why I loved them, and it’s still the essential point of reading for me.
In my teenage years, I went on regular trips to Bishopbriggs Library with my dad, our car journeys a precious chance to talk about books and reading and life. I graduated from the children’s section to adult books – the dedicated genre of YA hadn’t been dreamed up yet – and it was kind of thrilling because I could choose absolutely anything I liked. And that’s something about libraries that’s important. You, the reader, aren’t being targeted due to your previous choices the way you are when you buy books from Amazon. None of the books are being aggressively marketed. Publishers haven’t paid for displays and table space the way they do in bookshops.
Even when I left home to study and developed a love of the McMillan Round Reading Room in Glasgow University. Yet, even with its polished wooden tables coupled with the expansive views from the main Library’s tower, I found myself pulled back into the council libraries at Hillhead, Partick, and the holy grail of patterned carpets, the Mitchell Library. There was – still is – something about their egalitarian nature that appeals to me above all others. Local authority libraries have a peculiar dichotomy to them – they feel simultaneously safe and inclusive while offering a gateway to new interests, new connections, and new lives.
I’ve lived in the West End of Glasgow for nearly forty years now and my nearest library is Partick. It’s where I borrow books from, either ordering them through the Glasgow Libraries App or picking them up while I browse the shelves. I nearly always stay longer than the time it takes to collect or drop off books. A local history display will catch my eye, or I’ll end up in conversation about an author, or how to use the printer, or the incessant roadworks on Dumbarton Road. I always leave feeling happier than when I arrived.
So, if libraries are such positive places, why on earth would anyone want to cut their funding or close their doors?
Libraries are easy targets. The people who use them really value them but individually they hold very little power or influence. On the other hand, the people who don’t use them just don’t notice when opening hours are cut or a library closes because there’s no money forthcoming for essential repairs. Little by little services get eroded, staff feel frustrated and undervalued, people stop using the library as much, and these statistics back up claims that libraries aren’t needed anymore. Something wonderful gets chipped away at until nothing remains.
But is that just scaremongering? There have been lots of threats to libraries over the years. Reading books is always just about to be usurped by the latest technology or social shift, and yet libraries still prevail. They adapt by offering new things to the people who walk through the doors, but they can only continue to do this if we bolster the numbers using their services and show them our love and support. Here’s a handful of ways you can help:
- Join your local library. One thing that really frustrates attempts at cost-cutting community services is user numbers. Find out what you need to join and remember that, often, you don’t need to live in the area – you can work or study there too. I’ve got a library card for Edinburgh and Fife, as well as Glasgow.
- Have a look online at the range of services your local library offers. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at the amount of free access to things like useful databases, audiobooks, and music that’s on offer. And, of course, take books out! Not only is it free, it’s also environmentally friendly and (people are often surprised by this) writers get paid a small amount every time one of their books is borrowed.
- If your local library has an App, download it to your phone and use it to search, order, and renew books. In 2012, on the 200-year anniversary of his birth, I set myself a challenge to read every Charles Dickens novel. It took me a lot longer than just that year, but I ordered every novel in order of publication date through the Glasgow Libraries App. I’m not suggesting you follow my example; I realise how nerdy my Dickens obsession sounds, but it’s a lovely feeling to go pick up a book that someone has taken the time to find and put aside for you.
Libraries need more love
As I write this, I keep thinking of my grandmother and her love of libraries. She may have never bought any books to my knowledge, but there was always a new pile from the library in her living room. My grandma had to leave school at fourteen. She passed her qualification, and wanted to go to high school but her family were simply too poor. She wanted to stay on at school for another year and have a shot at an office job but her family… well, this isn’t a misery memoir, but you get the picture! She went to work in a linen mill. I’ve got a photo of her and two pals wearing pinnies and holding certificates of some kind. She looks young and happy and full of exuberance. She used to tell me that she’d get a book out of the library and sneak it into the toilet at home to read because it was the only place in an overcrowded house that she could get five minutes peace.
I was very lucky not to grow up in the kind of poverty my grandma experienced but I do share her love of libraries and I’d like them to be around for as long as people need them.