Sunday, January 10, 2016

Libraries Gave Us Power

One of my most vivid and abiding memories of childhood is walking with my sisters, on cold winter evenings, through the estate where we grew up, to the library at its centre. It is more than likely that my mum simply wanted us out of the house at a time of year when early darkness prevented playing out in the street. I was grateful to be banished from the house, though: the library was a magical place and I can still recall the thrill of being issued with my own borrowing card for the first time.

As I got older, the library became even more important to me: I often think that, because of the chaos of my 1970s comprehensive school, I received a better education in my local Council-run library. It was from there that I borrowed books by Dickens, Greene and Orwell that my dad had suggested to me. We were a reading family and there were always books at home when I was growing up but most of them came from the library; as in most working class families at that time, the only books I was bought were for birthday or Christmas presents.

Today, technology has made reading more accessible and books are cheaper to buy but, for a lot of people in austerity Britain, they are still relatively expensive. When there are mouths to feed, spending £30 on three of four books is a luxury. That is why our public libraries are just as important as ever, particularly for the young and the elderly. Whenever I visit my local library in Hailsham it is always busy with people accessing books and information technology.

However, since the massive cuts to local government spending begun by George Osborne in 2010, libraries have been under attack all over the country. The Daily Mirror reported yesterday that, in 2015, the equivalent of two libraries were permanently closed every week and spending on library services was cut by £50 million. With the exception of Pevensey Bay library - closed a year ago due to flooding and, mysteriously, still not re-opened - so far in my area, libraries have not suffered from large-scale cuts. However, that might be about to change.

As part of £90 million of cuts over the next three years, Tory-controlled East Sussex County Council wants to reduce library spending by £500,000 this year by cutting opening hours at all 24 libraries in the county by 25%. Although no closures are planned yet, with a further £1.5 million of savings to be identified in the following two years, this is clearly the first step in diminishing the library service in East Sussex and should be opposed; libraries should not be sacrificed in the name of austerity. Consultation on the proposals begins tomorrow and you can find details, and have your say, here.

It is important to fight to protect our libraries as they are transformative places: for those who are isolated, they provide a connection to the world; for those who realise the value of education and knowledge, they are empowering; for those with seemingly limited opportunities, they are a gateway to a better life. And they have great books.

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