Today is National Libraries Day, a fairly new annual celebration of the UK’s many public libraries. Though the future of many libraries is in doubt at the moment, they are definitely worth supporting and celebrating as an important part of life both locally and nationally. Of course, it would be very easy to note that I’m biased, being a librarian, though from a different sector of the library world. I should point out that I loved libraries long before I even considered working in one. But why?
First and foremost, the books. As I grew up, the library was able to feed my voracious appetite for reading, something which my parents would never have been able to afford to cope with had they had to pay for all the books I got through. I read the lot. The complete works of authors such as Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton (yes, even the stories set in girls’ schools!). The Mary Poppins books. The Jennings books. Classic books like Kidnapped, Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson. And once I’d exhausted the area of the library dedicated to children, I started to raid the main shelves. Agatha Christie. Terry Pratchett. Ngaio Marsh. Plus the non-fiction, of course. I had to learn about the world, and the resources that the library provided enabled me to read about the natural world, the arts and more. These days, I buy a lot more books than I could ever have conceived of as a child, and have discovered many more authors and works which inspire me, but I still borrow from libraries.
Then there are librarians. Generally not like the scary Madam Pince from the Harry Potter novels, though also not derring-doers like Buffy’s mentor Rupert Giles, I nonetheless respected and appreciated librarians in my youth. They seemed to know so much, and were always helpful. I now know that librarians do indeed know a lot of things, but their (our) greatest skill is the ability to find things out. To know where to look to find the answer. And no, even in the brave new world of information technology the answer isn’t always “look on Wikipedia” or “just Google it”.
Public libraries also offer a whole range of activities and services which I don’t make use of, but am glad exist. They can be a major part of the social life of more vulnerable members of society – services like the mobile library allow books and perhaps more importantly people to reach members of the community who can’t get into the town centre. Young children and their parents can socialise through storytimes or the intriguingly-named bounce and rhyme. Then there are reading groups, the collections of talking books, the sessions for help with IT skills and much more. All of these should be treasured and fostered.
Some people say libraries are irrelevant because everything’s online now. Well, that’s not true. Not everything is online, and even when it is, not everyone is able or willing to access it. Even if you’re a believer in the idea that only the online is relevant, public libraries offer their members an increasing range of online resources, quality sources of information which they would otherwise have to pay for. My local library service, for instance, provides access to biographical resources, sites for researching family history, an archive of classical music and selected services intended to help with homework. Who, exactly, would provide all of this if it didn’t come from the library service.
I love libraries because they helped foster my love of the written word and encourage my curiosity. I love libraries because they have wonderful staff. I love libraries because their activities brighten the lives of many people in need. And I love libraries because they have moved with the times, providing computing facilities, e-books and online reference resources.
Love them, visit them, support them – every day, but particularly today.