Why do we need libraries, anyway?

I’ve said it before, I may well say it again: inside this retired vicar’s breast there still beats the heart of a librarian – albeit one who is very relieved he didn’t spend his whole life in librarianship, in view of the trials and tribulations libraries have been suffering in this country, for as long as I or probably anyone else can remember. Just a few of the statistics tell it all:

  • In 2016 alone, 105 public libraries closed in the UK.
  • Between 2016 and 2017, public library spending fell by £66 million.
  • Annual UK spending on public libraries is just £14.40 per head of the population.
  • The UK is only the 17th most literate nation in the world.

Meanwhile, in Finland, which the UN declared in 2016 the most literate nation in the world they spend £50.50 per inhabitant on public libraries. Nearly four times as much. They’ve just spent €100 million on a new library in Helsinki, called Oodi, even though there are already 36 public libraries in the city.

I wonder if there could be any connection between these statistics, and the highest rate of literacy?

In a May 2018 story in the Guardian about Finland’s libraries, the report begins with the inspiring story of a young girl named Nasima Razmyar who arrived in Finland from Afghanistan in 1992 as a political refugee and asylum seeker. Her father had been a former Afghan diplomat, forced to flee with his family to seek safety elsewhere.

“A library card was the first thing that was mine, that I had ever owned,” says Nasima Razmyar. … Unable to speak the language, with scant resources, and trying to make sense of the strange new city she found herself in, she was stunned to discover she was entitled to a library card that would grant her books – for free. Her appreciation of the privilege has not faded: “I still have that library card in my wallet today,” she says proudly.

That girl is now the deputy mayor of Helsinki, and justly proud of the new library which provides so much more than most of what we in the UK associate with libraries. The Finns see libraries as the visible symbol of their beliefs in education, equality and citizenship, which make me want to ask hard questions about whether we even mean the same things as they do, when we or our politicians mouth those words.

Public libraries are clearly one of the key providers of equality of opportunity. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why successive cost-cutting Governments have starved them of resources?

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