On Libraries

Claire Thomson

Glasgow’s Mitchell Library is one of the biggest public libraries in Europe. It’s a hub of learning, creativity and community action. It’s also home to some of the best carpets I’ve ever seen. Some are sweeping florals, some are pure 1970s geometry and some are loud Paisleys. Just over a mile north west, the city’s Hillhead Library is also an ode to 1970s design, with concrete facing and an orange carpet. Its mezzanine level is populated by missionaries listening to the life stories of those they successfully stopped on Byres Road, and stressed university students. I often studied there to the soundtrack of a bounce and rhyme session for toddlers or the exchanges between borrowers and the library’s kind staff. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Every library has its own character. Edinburgh Central Library welcomes “well behaved” dogs on Thursdays, Highgate Library runs a cake club, Kentish Town Library has a knitting club. Common to them all though is the ideal of learning and reading being available to all, regardless of income. It was pointed out during the general election campaign that if libraries were offered in a manifesto today, the idea would be laughed out the door. 

The idea of a space full of knowledge in the form of books and computer access, staffed by knowledgeable professionals, open to all without a subscription or entry fee would likely be deemed too radical to be possible; something dreamt up by an unrepentant idealist with no grasp of fiscal or societal reality. And that is precisely the beauty of libraries. At their core, they are a reminder of what is truly possible. We can provide knowledge and warmth and help to all if there is the political and societal will to do so.

I used to work in an office near the Barbican Centre and spent my lunch hours in its beautiful Brutalist library. I’d read a book or look at its courtyard ponds from a chair by the art section or write. Sometimes I went back after work, too. By the end of my first fortnight in the job, I began to recognise the regulars. There was the man reading the Guardian in a chair by the sci-fi section, the woman browsing audiobooks, the man who sat down with his hood up and stared into the distance for half an hour or so. We were each there for very different and very similar reasons and needs, I think, and the library fulfilled them all for free.

That library was the only place in the City where I could sit in the warmth and simply exist without an obligation or expectation to spend. This lack of accessible public space isn’t unique to London. I now live in Edinburgh, where open public space is quickly sacrificed in the name of commercialisation, for the summer festivals or the Christmas markets. In the face of this, libraries are a sanctuary of space open to all, no matter how much or how little you can afford.

We have lost over 800 libraries since 2010. A very quick scan of the #iamalibraryworker tag on Twitter shows how essential libraries are for the social fabric of the UK and what we face losing. One library worker described the man he helped use the public computers to search for a job, the woman photocopying medical documents required for a Personal Independence Payment assessment and the elderly man who just wanted to chat after his wife had died. Library workers are too often desperately trying to tie the rapidly unravelling threads of our social fabric together; to do what they can in the face of swingeing cuts to social care and welfare, as well as to their own libraries. We ask too much of library workers, but their work has never been more important.

Then of course, there are the books. There is no way I would have been able to get my first job in publishing had I not lived near a library well stocked with the latest hardbacks. I borrowed as many as I could and referenced them in countless covering letters, and eventually interviews. Each one of the many books would have cost around £20 to buy, a sum my London Living Wage salary had little room for after I had paid my rent.

More importantly, libraries are portals to the world of reading which would otherwise be out of reach for the over 380,000 children in the UK who don’t own a book. Author of Lowborn, Kerry Hudson, has been vocal about the role libraries played in developing her love of books, and later, writing. And for families who can afford and access books, libraries are safe and welcoming spaces in which to enjoy and share reading. I have yet to meet a booklover or a writer without a personal anecdote of a childhood library experience. 

What I find is less common is for this childhood love and appreciation of libraries to translate into noisy public advocacy of libraries from adult readers. I know many adults who frequent libraries and have deep and genuine attachments to their favourite branches. But I know fewer who are vocal about these attachments, especially online. Like it or not, Instagram and social media more broadly are more important for the literary ecosystem than ever before. Some libraries, such as Orkney’s, have brilliantly engaging and witty social media presences. But borrowers’ experiences and their enthusiasm for libraries need to be shared more loudly. 

There are plenty of photos of imposing libraries like the New York Public Library on the #libraries Instagram tag. But what seems rarer is the glare of a lightbulb from an ordinary library book’s plastic cover in a #bookstagram post, the curling corners of the protective covering framing a shot, or seeing the faint indents marking where readers have folded down pages, marking their many journeys through the same book. This isn’t to say that Instagramming a worn copy of The Secret History is enough to save the UK’s libraries. For that, we need political will and action. But I do think that a widespread sharing of the joy and value of libraries can go some way to building the social pressure we need to bring that political will into being.Library’s universalism is what makes them special. They cut across social and class lines to provide a space for everybody. But within this universalism is the fact that libraries are most important for the most vulnerable in society, and it’s the most vulnerable who will be hardest hit if more libraries are closed this year. It’s unfortunately up to all of us to keep fighting for our libraries. This starts with making proper use of them; borrowing books, using their computers, renting their community spaces. It also means telling your elected representatives how much you value them, before they come under threat. And it means sharing your love for your library as widely as you can. It can start with Instagram.

Claire Thomson works in communications for an arts funding body. She is studying an MA in Art History part-time and lives in Edinburgh. Her fiction has previously appeared in Dear Damsels.