Libraries have been the cornerstone of the literary community for centuries. The first recorded free public library in the UK was Salford Museum and Art Gallery, formerly known as The Royal Museum and Public Library. Since then they have helped shape the minds of the general public, educating them and transporting them to lands far far away. Walking through the stacks of books, you are left to explore the treasures within… Fiction or non-fiction? Romance or Adventure? Novel or short story? These literary cornucopias are designed to spark the interest of everyone that steps foot inside.
It is a beautiful thing, to be able to meander through the aisles and come across exactly what you are looking for. To spot that one book that speaks out to you with its compelling title and bold cover art. Designing a book to stand out is a daily challenge in the publishing industry, but worth every moment when you suddenly come across your own creations. Libraries are the birthplace of imagination and free thinking; with every open book it can open a new window, expanding your mind to new worlds. They have always played a significant part in communities; parents bring their children; students use them to study; those that are in need of help look to them for instruction; those that look for escape use them to find new worlds.
Yet, with progress comes change, and the way that a library is used is constantly changing. The Digital age has lead to some incredible inventions that have opened up the literary world to new possibilities. The internet allows people to read and discuss literature online with others who may or may not share the same views as you; the birth of the Kindle and eBooks makes reading while you travel so much easier; blogs and vlogs help expose more talent to the rest of the world free of charge, and in the moment. However, what has this meant for the Library? According to Statista, in the UK at the moment, there are 4,145 registered public libraries, with 282.33 million visits each year; however that number has dropped from 4,620 in 2002. The magical, almost sacred feeling that you experience still exists for many, but the world is changing as technology plays an ever greater role in our lives, and so libraries must change and adapt too.
A number of campaigns are currently in place, particularly in the North of England to help save and resurrect our libraries. The Read Regional Campaign, produced by New Writing North, works with 23 local authorities in the North East, North West and Yorkshire to help promote local authors by hosting events and urging these authorities, which includes Manchester, to stock more regional books in their libraries. On a more national scale, there are charities registered with the aim of helping promote libraries, such as The Library Campaign. I managed to get in touch with their Chair, Laura Sullivan, who was happy to answer a few questions for me:
Hi Laura, thank you for agreeing to this interview. What are your main goals within The Library Campaign?
Our official aims as a registered charity are:
- To advance the lifelong education of the public by the promotion, support, assistance and improvement of public libraries through the activities of friends and user groups.
- In practice we are a resource for local people and unions to work for what THEY decide they want for their libraries.
In better times this has mostly meant keeping them informed – via the website, the magazine and contact when people phone us etc – about national reports, trends etc, and the many brilliant organisations and schemes for promoting reading and libraries that they can latch on to.
More recently it has been much more about helping them fight closures. If you look across the top of our website, including back issues of the magazine, you’ll get the general idea. Resources, list of campaign groups, advice on campaigning, etc. www.librarycampaign.com
We are a contact for the press, do local TV interviews, lobby government etc, occasionally mount a full-scale rally/lobby of Parliament, co-organise an annual national conference called Speak Up for Libraries (this didn’t happen in 2016-17 for various reasons).
Have you recently received any funding from the government or the Arts Council? If so, has that been dedicated to any new initiatives within ‘The Library Campaign’?
We have never received any outside funding. We are funded by member subscriptions, the occasional donation and we do get some support from UNISON for the magazine (they are not consulted on the content and never see it until it comes out!)
Your organisation aims to engage more people to fight against the closures of libraries. What would you suggest would be a good way of enticing more people to use libraries these days? Especially amongst Young Adults.
We don’t need to encourage anyone to fight library closures! People always do it spontaneously. And darned well. We inform and support (see above).
Quite honestly, more people would be enticed to use libraries if they just knew what they offer. If you get them through the door they are often amazed at what they find. Local services are – mostly – very bad at basic publicity. There is a lack of relevant skills, budget, time and mindset. Some do basic things like getting schools to visit so they actually see inside the library, some don’t. Some make great use of council websites, social media, leaflets and posters etc, some don’t. This is a role for Friends groups, where they are not too busy just fighting closures.
The national bodies should do MUCH more. There have been sporadic efforts, but they are not maintained. The National Literacy Trust, for instance, got millions to join when they did Year of Literacy national campaigns but it’s not their main job and it faded away when they turned to other things. Likewise The Reading Agency had a fantastic Love Libraries campaign with a website, heart logo, posters, T-shirts, mugs etc, celeb supporters, annual Library of the Year competition and much more, but at the end of the funded project they handed it on to the body then responsible for library development, the MLA, and they just let it die. I could go on…
So… where the library is known about, still has decent stock, librarians with the right attitude and relevant activities, YAs actually use libraries quite a lot. Basics like PCs and study space are heavily used.
Do you have any pressing campaigns within the North West of England?
No campaign is ‘ours’. We just support local people who do the campaigning.
Current or recent NW hotspots include Liverpool, Lancaster, Wirral, Salford, Bury… but you’ll probably see rumblings just about anywhere you look – except maybe Manchester, as there doesn’t seem to be any problems with libraries there.
[a 500 strong rally in London last year to defend all ten libraries in Lambeth borough]
Do you notice a difference in the way that libraries are being used today? Has the Digital age, and the increase in technology been a detriment to libraries, or do you believe that they can be used to bring more library users back?
PCs and Internet access were installed in all libraries in the People’s Network national project around 2000. It will be quite some time before everyone is online at home. Plenty of people can’t afford it. About 8m UK-wide have no access, another 7.4m barely use it because they don’t know how. With people increasingly forced to claim benefits/apply for jobs online, kids needing PCs to do their homework, older people needing help to find out what it’s all about, refugees needing to keep in touch with their homelands, etc, demand is not falling.
Many libraries lend out laptops. For those who are online at home, they lend e-books, e-magazines and journals, have subscriptions to the major reference works which are now all online, and give access to millions of academic papers. If only people knew…
So what can we do to save libraries as we know them? Currently the most common age for library visitors is between 45 and 64, with the lowest registered demographic being between the ages of 16 and 25, who only represent 6.75% of visitors. Granted, these statistics do not take into account that most students at university age spend a lot of time in academic libraries, of which quite a few in the North West have been recently renovated, including Lancaster University Library and The University of Manchester Library. The influence of technology on today’s society, and the growing importance of digital sources for academic purposes over hard copies of books certainly plays a factor. If you look at the events held at any library in the UK, you will see that there are more events tailored to helping with technology, or job enrichment over book readings and literary events. However, to find out about these events you have to do some serious digging on council websites. After talking to Laura, what seems to be the main issue for Libraries at the present moment is not the fact that they aren’t adapting to the digital age, just that people are unclear about what they offer for the community. This blog article will hopefully be the first in a series to help spread awareness of what different libraries in the North West are doing, and how they can best help you.
Blog post by Megan Edgar, Comma intern Summer 2017