Libraries: use them or lose them

By Nalini Haynes

For most of my life I’ve read books from libraries.

When I was growing up, the library in the small town of St Helens in Tasmania was smaller than my living room today.  The library was a one-room affair, a weatherboard structure with one window facing the main street, shelves against the interior walls, one or two bookshelves in the centre of the room, a few wire carousel stands holding books and the librarian’s desk doubled as checkout near the exit.  The library was disappointingly small for a voracious reader like myself but it included gems AND the ability to request books from the State Library of Tasmania (any other branch of the public library catering to the entire state).  As I lived with my grandmother in Hobart, I only occasionally used this library during the summer holidays when I visited my mother and siblings.  The summer I found Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein in this library, I also noticed a sign on the wall.

The sign read:

Libraries for times of no money
is better than
Money for times of no libraries.

This went straight to my heart then as I received $2.50 pocket money per week when I lived with Grandma and none when I visited Mum.  This tiny amount had to pay for haircuts, personal items, bus fares, etcetera, so I didn’t have money to spend on books.  If I’d had to rely on purchasing books I would hardly have read at all.

My reading over the years has been sporadic and unstructured, until recently mostly relying on finding books in libraries, which means WAITING MONTHS while popular new books wend their way through reserve lists, hoping the book isn’t stolen and is returned…

I used to love looking in book stores even as a young adult; this was also sad because I couldn’t afford to purchase even a small portion of my heart’s desire.  And some of the books I splurged on – like a hardcover of Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon – were stolen by ‘friends’.  Over years I’ve repeatedly returned to libraries to seek out new novels and boldly go where I haven’t gone before.

Some of my son’s favourite books as a toddler were gorgeous picture books from the library, like a very simple story about a frog whose parents told him not to blow bubbles or he’d float away; he blew beautiful bubbles, became trapped in one and floated away before it popped so he was saved.  The pictures were gorgeous, the book giant-sized, adding novelty to a story he loved.  In his pre-school years, he enjoyed going to the library, looking at all the books and playing with the toys.  Without libraries lots of young children would miss out on their weekly trip to the library, missing out on that wealth of books from which to choose, never becoming bored with their books, always having a new story to explore, only needing a small shelf of best-loved favourites at home.

In recent years, libraries have taken on the additional role of providing free access to the internet for many people, especially those on low incomes.  Students, the elderly and the unemployed use library computers for research, email access, job searching and so on.  Thus the expense of purchasing and maintaining computers while also paying for an internet connection can be avoided without being excluded from this essential modern resource.  Some libraries even offer basic computer literacy training.  Without libraries the divide between the rich and the poor will grow ever wider, excluding impoverished people and disadvantaging them further.

I have been deeply saddened by numerous recent stories of how libraries have had to mount campaigns to forestall closure.  Some of these campaigns have been very creative and successful, like the Book Burning Party at Troy Library.  I believe other libraries may have been closed, while still more are mounting campaigns for their survival.

Alexandra Topping and Benedicte Page of the Guardian write that libraries are seen as an easy – read: less unpopular – avenue for cost-cutting by councils in the UK.  As many as one in five libraries will be closed to meet cost-cutting targets in the UK.

Charles Simic of the New York Review of Books website says:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire.

Libraries are community centres, providing endless supplies of books for entertainment, resources for students of all ages and, most importantly of all, providing opportunities for young children to experience a wealth of books, more than most parents could afford, instilling in these children a life-long love of literature.  Or, at barest minimum, the ability to read.  Libraries also provide web access and computer literacy for people of all ages.

I predict closure of libraries will have greater long-term costs for the community than the short-term benefits of meeting immediate cost-cutting targets.

Support libraries.