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Why Your Public Library Matters Now More Than Ever

Public libraries cost money. In fact, public libraries are expensive.

No surprise then that when it comes to cutting the cost of public services, our public libraries and their budgets are also up for grabs.

I posted an article on Facebook recently lamenting the loss of 900 public libraries in England and Wales in the past decade.

I introduced the link by widening the discussion beyond economics, budgets and public fund priorities. Or at least I wanted to suggest that public fund priorities, in any responsible democracy, have more criteria than financial savings on what they cost.

This seems a pressing and increasingly global conversation with President Trump seeking permanent funding cuts to U.S. libraries in two consecutive budget proposals.

The return on investment in public libraries can’t simply be measured by balancing annual costs with annual footfall.

If a library running at a loss provides the books that set a young Stephen Hawking asking questions or provides internet access so that over the year hundreds of job applications have been filed online and 30 people are now in employment, how is that computed over and against cost?

Or if a single parent finds some respite by their child attending story time, or a book group run by older people on a weekly basis provides friendship, human contact, mental stimulus and a few hours’ warmth and comfort, what price could one possibly place on these things?

And we’ve hardly started talking about the importance of reading, books and ideas as the subsoil of a healthy culture.

Libraries provide resources for self-education, encourage social exchange, create space and resources for cultural stimulus, offer a public service dedicated to helping people learn, solve problems, interact, dream dreams and fund hopes.

Public libraries are a recognition that knowledge should not be privatized or priced beyond the poor.

Libraries ensure a local supermarket for ideas, enabling and nurturing imagination.

If all that isn’t enough, libraries are repositories of civic mutuality and social capital.

The observation that libraries close because of lack of use is, in my view, an argument based on limited data and even more limited criteria for their usefulness, value and necessity as one of our most important public institutions.

Even if it is true that library footfall is down, as noted above, that is only one criterion of value, and one quite insufficient to justify widespread closure and removal of a resource vital to a community’s social, intellectual and cultural life.

I’d also like to hear the views of librarians about so-called “lack of use.” Public spending priorities are themselves culturally driven, and in turn become cultural drivers. That means politics.

Given that public libraries are effectively experiments in literary socialism, it would be easy to find a rationale to close or limit library resources if a primary driver is saving public expenditure on the assumption that people should provide their own internet access, books and other social and educational benefits libraries provide. But that is also a political standpoint.

Going back to the question of lack of use, I am aware of various reviews of footfall in libraries here in Scotland, including Aberdeen city and the Shire.

These tend to be about numbers using them, not the socioeconomic makeup of the number of people who still use libraries and their facilities, and for whom they are essential resources.

Interestingly, a couple of broadsheets had column inches devoted to the growing importance of public libraries in a time of austerity, especially for children and young people who cannot afford to buy books or who don’t have internet access.

The Pew Research Center noted a similar trend in the U.S. during the economic recession when more than 50 percent of the nation visited a public library at least once in a 12-month period.

From 2012 to 2016, an average of 47.8 percent of U.S. citizens ages 16 or older visit a local library each year.

I wonder if part of the problem is that those making the decisions to keep or close libraries neither use them nor need to use them.

I hold as a matter of deep social ethics and therefore justice, the rights of people regardless of economic or social circumstance, to have access to educational resources, basic internet facilities and sources for ideas, imagination and intellectual development.

A library is so much more than premises stuffed with books; the social importance of a public library is a net contributor to community health, social well-being and intellectual resources for human development.

My own educational journey began and was given decisive impetus through the various public libraries I used and haunted in my growing-up years.

My love of literature, instinctive curiosity, intellectual taste and interest range are traceable to books borrowed and devoured, to reference books lifted and thumped on the desks under reading lights, to friendly knowledgeable librarians who could spot a reader a mile away.

And, yes, these are now bygone days. If libraries are to survive, they will need to adapt the services they provide, develop the space and resources, be innovative in services and seeking new valued roles in the community.

But they will do this as libraries, as repositories of learning and wisdom, as factories for ideas and dreams and hopes and strategies, as spaces where people meet and social exchange becomes part of that deep education.

Libraries, at their best in the humanizing context of shared interest, encourage the pursuit of learning, stimulate the joy of reading and serve as a reliable source of essential internet access for those we dare not leave behind.

It’s for our sakes as well as theirs.

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.