It was really good to read in the news this week that the Canary Island of Fuerteventura will once again provide a Beach Library at the beach of Los Pozos. It is a simple concept, users can read books and magazines, as well as participating in a range of activities, such as sports and workshops connected to reading. This library will include books in various languages, and readers can even take their book home with them to finish reading. Exciting stuff, isn’t it?
Wait a minute, isn’t this what we used to have in the UK, but admittedly without a view of the beach? Sadly, the last time I visited the UK, my local library had closed and is now a tyre depot. Similarly, many other local libraries are under threat of either closure or have been handed over to well-meaning groups of volunteers who are responsible for maintaining and funding its continued existence.
I have spent most of my working life encouraging children and adults to read, and hopefully nurturing a love of books, as well as teaching how to access relevant information, which has become increasingly important at this time of ‘fake news’. No, I don’t always mean stuffy old print books, but all manner of electronic media, Kindles, e-readers, iPads and the like. When a gift is required, my first inclination and preference is always to give a good book, rather than a stuffed toy or a computer game. Does it really matter? Have I really wasted my time (and money)? Does anyone value books and read for pleasure anymore?
What is happening to all those wonderful (and not so wonderful) buildings that used to be a storehouse of magic and information in the UK? Figures from 2017 show that around 500 libraries have closed in England, Scotland and Wales. Whatever happened to the idea of libraries as information points, which include access to computers, as well as books? Not everyone has access to, or can afford a smartphone or a computer. Knowledgeable and supportive staff are needed to help the elderly, the homeless, and the disadvantaged to access information. One quarter of all library jobs in the UK, which is around 8000 staff, have disappeared over the last few years. I recall the mother of David Cameron, the UK’s previous Prime Minister, campaigning vigorously to keep her local library open; so maybe it does matter.
“Ah yes”, we are told “this is the result of the recession…” During the same period that libraries closed, around 15,000 volunteers were recruited. As well-meaning as volunteers are, they are no longer appointed to assist full-time, professional staff, but to replace them. As well as exploiting the good nature and willingness of volunteers, it devalues the professionalism and dedication of well-trained, professional and experienced library staff. Presumably, the next step will be to replace full time teachers and nurses with well-meaning volunteers?
When a branch of House of Fraser or Marks and Spencer closes, there is a huge outcry and protests at this “hideous distortion of the High Street”, but is there the same outcry and defence of a local library when it is handed over to local volunteers or, worse still, closed? “Oh, we can get it all on line” is the predictable response, but is this true?
A well-run and well-managed library is of tremendous benefit to the whole community. As well as a providing a source of richness and magic, libraries provide easy and ready access to a confusing world of information. I wonder if any reader has applied for the new Universal Credit? I don’t know that much about it, but I do know that there are many who cannot access the information simply because they do not have ready access to a smartphone or a computer. A library with trained and knowledgeable staff on hand to provide help and advice is essential in assisting claimants to negotiate the minefield of this benefit.
Libraries also provide solid defence against the modern scourge of loneliness faced by many elderly, as well as younger people. It is a safe space that offers shared experiences and a chance to be with people, as well as keeping warm during those cold winter days, and without having to spend any money.
If libraries didn’t already exist, we would be busy inventing them. Thankfully, my experiences in Spain’s libraries tell me that they are mostly valued, well used and comparatively well-funded to their UK counterparts. As for that wonderful Beach Library in Fuerteventura; I cannot wait to visit it.© Barrie Mahoney ￼