Today
Wed 21 April 2021

Maheen Behrana reflects on the harsh austerity imposed on libraries, and its impact on political consciousness

It would seem both bizarre and destructive to suggest that because we have done without schools, pubs and theatres during lockdown, that we don’t really need them at all.

Yet this was the same logic propounded by Walsall’s council leader, Mike Bird, when he suggested he was considering whether, having done without libraries for so long during the Coronavirus pandemic, it is necessary to reopen them at all.

This policy could be dismissed as a one-off act of local cretinism. However, outright hostility towards sites of bookish learning is not exclusive to Bird. In fact, his comments come against a backdrop of further cuts to libraries, with budgets to March 2020 set to have fallen by an average of 14%. Though libraries account for just 0.6% of council spending, they have repeatedly been the subject of harsh funding cuts. In 2010, public spending on libraries was more than £1 billion; this year it was just £725 million.

That libraries have been major casualties of the decade of austerity should not come as a surprise. With spending restraint used by successive Conservative regimes as a cover for the ideological pursuit of a stripped-back state, it is easy to justify cuts to a service which can be construed as superfluous when compared with social care and schools.

But the social and economic benefits of libraries are considerable. A 2015 study estimated that libraries save the NHS in England around £27.5 million a year, simply by bettering mental and physical health through community services and literacy.

Libraries also offer very practical services to the disadvantaged – internet access, for example. As of February this year, around 4% of households had no internet access whatsoever; as of this month, 12% of households did not have a computer within the home. Meanwhile, the number of children in destitute households has doubled since 2017, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests.

Many of us take these things for granted, partly because the internet seems so vital and ubiquitous in the modern world. Yet for a small but significant minority, accessing the internet or a suitable device is not possible. For many of those people, libraries fill the gap.

For Bird and austerity merchants to therefore claim that libraries are redundant not only betrays an ignorance about this public service, but also suggests a willingness to condone the disenfranchisement of those already most disconnected.


The Ignorance of Authoritarianism

As a rule of thumb, I treat library-skeptics with caution. Growing up, I saw and felt first-hand the benefits of libraries. As a volunteer in my local library, I noticed how the space offered a chance for so many people from a range of backgrounds to find refuge, respite and an escape from the troubles of everyday life. And this isn’t just me waxing lyrical; library users on average self-report higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness and purpose than non-users, even when other factors are controlled for.

Libraries aren’t just repositories of books – they offer classes, reading groups and community links, often for free. They act as social hubs at a time when many of our community services are on the brink of collapse. They act as spaces of inclusion and friendship at a time when society is divided, for everyone is gladly welcomed inside. Those who do not appreciate the social value of libraries are either indifferent towards those who need them most, or stand in opposition to their social mission.

But why would people oppose the social mission of the humble library? Well, significantly, the strongest networks of libraries are typically found in countries with the most stable democracies. Dictators of all stripes have an unpleasant history of ransacking and closing libraries, as well as publicly burning books. As hubs containing a range of freely accessible ideas, libraries exemplify the ideal of public education – befitting of a robust democracy with a well-informed public.

While I certainly don’t claim that Mike Bird is anti-democratic, I do believe those who harbour suspicions of libraries generally seek to undermine the notion of a well-educated and free thinking public. The effect of their approach is to sever community links that often allow people to organise collectively with a political or social will.

So, we should all beware of a government which is happy to cut library services. The UK is embroiled in a dual health and economic crisis, but austerity is a political choice.

Though people may always robustly defend the NHS, libraries are not necessarily viewed as a priority in hard times. This misplaced apathy is what may lead to the slow but sure dismantling of some of our most important community spaces. Those who seek to undermine libraries seek to undermine our intellectual freedoms – and the fundamentals of kindness and knowledge that any good society should adhere to.


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