Nottingham East MP and regular LeftLion columnist Nadia Whittome tells us why libraries are so important...
Like, I’m sure, many LeftLion readers, I have many childhood memories associated with Nottingham’s libraries: whether that’s being taken to West Bridgford library as a young kid, revising at the Meadows library as a teenager, or volunteering at the Language Café at the old Central Library on Angel Row.
Growing up, I took these spaces for granted. But when the idea of public libraries was first proposed, it was met with resistance. The 1850 Public Libraries Act, which gave boroughs the powers to open free libraries, provoked a great deal of controversy among some MPs. The thought of opening up knowledge to the masses sparked fears that it would give people dangerous political ideas. Concerns were raised that it was a waste of money, and why would working class people need all those books anyway?
Despite these objections, the legislation passed and local libraries sprung up in cities and towns. In the decades that followed, they became an obvious part of our landscape, providing information, inspiration, and entertainment to millions. Unfortunately, now their future is under threat once again.
Creating “public living rooms” where people can work and read together, host events, and make friends is one way of tackling the loneliness epidemic
Between 2010 and 2020, nearly 800 public libraries - around one in five - closed their doors for good. Years of central government cuts have forced local councils to save on non-essential services, and libraries have suffered as a result, with their funding falling by a quarter. In Nottingham, thanks to a successful campaign, Basford, Aspley and Radford-Lenton libraries have luckily been saved from closure.
Some people argue that there’s no point investing in libraries, given the number of visits has been steadily declining, and is now more than a third lower than in 2005. But as well as reflecting wider changes, most notably the rise of the internet, these figures also point to a vicious circle. You’re less likely to go to a library if there isn’t one in your area anymore, if it closes early, or is underfunded and unattractive.
Even in the digital era, libraries still play an important and enriching role in many people’s lives. The internet can’t replace the joy of turning the pages of a novel, or discovering a forgotten book from decades ago. For many children and adult students, they’re vital learning spaces, widening access to knowledge and fuelling curiosity.
Although promoting education remains libraries’ core mission, they’re so much more than just places to store books. They’re among the few indoor public spaces where people can spend time - work, study or simply hang out - without the need to pay.
Around 1.5 million people in the UK live in overcrowded homes, and 1.5 million households don’t have internet access. As working from home has become normalised, and some companies are getting rid of physical offices altogether, spaces to work from become particularly necessary. Thousands of people also use public libraries to apply for jobs and benefits, with support from staff if needed. In the summer, air-conditioned libraries provided refuge from the heat, and as energy bills skyrocketed, they offered some much-needed warmth in the winter.
As working from home has become normalised, and some companies are getting rid of physical offices altogether, spaces to work from become particularly necessary
But even if those problems were fixed - by mass investment in affordable housing, a programme of insulating homes, and tackling digital exclusion - I still firmly believe in the need for community spaces that bring people together. The pandemic reminded us that screens can never replace the benefits of in-person interaction. Creating “public living rooms” where people can work and read together, host events, and make friends is one way of tackling the loneliness epidemic, which is affecting younger and older people alike.
In February, during Parliamentary recess, I went on a trip to Finland to learn more about solutions that have worked there. In Helsinki, I visited the beautiful Oodi Central Library, which was inaugurated in 2018. Over 3,000 citizens had taken part in a participatory planning process, voted on its design, and collectively decided how to spend a portion of its €100m budget.
The result is astonishing: a stunning three-storey building featuring a cinema, recording studios with instruments for hire, spaces for exhibitions and events, workshops for creatives, and play areas for kids - alongside a collection of 100,000 books, and a top-floor reading room called “book heaven”. In its first year, the library attracted over three million visits.
With an immersive story-telling room for kids, a learning lab for school activities, and a performance area, I hope that it can help put to bed the myth that public libraries are just a relic of a bygone era
The Finnish public library system is among the best-funded in Europe, with 50% of Finns visiting a library at least once a month and a fifth using one weekly. This is likely one of the reasons why Finland has been named the most literate nation on Earth.
I hope the UK can learn from its example, and reverse the trend of defunding libraries. But while a British equivalent of Oodi might be some way off, I can’t wait for the opening of Nottingham’s new Central Library this summer. With an immersive story-telling room for kids, a learning lab for school activities, and a performance area, I hope that it can help put to bed the myth that public libraries are just a relic of a bygone era.
Meanwhile, I want to give a shout out to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which works with the City Council to provide free books to Nottingham children under five. If you can, please support the wonderful initiative by donating at gofundme.com/f/bigreadingchallenge2023.
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