In praise of London’s libraries

BrixtonCentralLibrary

The beautiful Brixton central library

How many of you are members of your local library?

I know some of you will be of course. I know some of you were very vocal about the recent cuts to library budgets. I know some of you go there for your kids, to borrow books and go to play groups. But the vast, vast majority of my friends, I am pretty certain, haven’t passed the door of a library since they were at school.

And I was exactly the same until YESTERDAY, when I joined Richmond libraries. And I am both amazed and impressed at how brilliant they are, and ashamed that I didn’t join sooner.

I have rose-tinted memories of libraries as a child – going along every week with my mum to take out books on penguins and snails; and then on my own slightly older to explore, crimson-cheeked, books by Judy Bloom, marveling at the high-tech way you could scroll through old newspapers on their machines.

But then libraries were about boring dusty books at Uni, revising and avoidance, and I never really went again.

Until now. Now I have a son, I want him to read a lot like I did, to explore books – their smells and the imagination within them, to discover authors and adventures. And I also want to start reading more myself – and having a house that is weighed down with books already, I don’t particularly need to own any more.

So I went along yesterday, egged on in all honesty by the fact that both my son and I are bored of all his books and I wanted to get him some more, and discovered that libraries now have so much more than they used to. They have free internet access. They let you borrow audio books, both kids and adults. They let you borrow MUSIC and boxsets (“The Wire? Yeah we let you keep that for 3 weeks”). They have every type of book imaginable and allow you to explore new authors and old friends alike. And they are all new-fangled with online renewals and inventories and a nifty computer thingie which you simply swipe your books to your account (yes I realise this is linked to the cuts – more on that below).

And the best thing? I am ashamed that I just didn’t know this – I simply assumed in this world where there is no such a thing as a free lunch that you would have to pay something, a few quid perhaps for each set of books you wanted (yes, I know, The Chef already laughed at me ) – that all of this is FREE. That is, up to 20 books for 3 weeks for just the price of paying your taxes. And in a London where you can barely walk out your front door without shelling a tenner here and there, that is a great thing.

The other great thing about the library? It is a community - your community. It was filled with dads looking at crime novels, grandfathers trying out this new-fangled interweb thingie, kids playing and reading about frogs, mums reading to toddlers, your neighbours all. They have baby singing classes and reading groups, fairs and talks.

It reminded me of my childhood, where life was about simplicity, and community, and where money didn’t matter so much, or certainly it wasn’t so apparent to me as it is now.

So I’m going to support the library in any way I can. Although my first challenge is to see if I can read my first bloody book in 3 weeks! Shantaram took me a YEAR…

Finally, I couldn’t talk about London’s libraries without talking about the cuts. I had read about them, of course, without really understanding how they affected me. So last night I looked at this website  which told me what’s actually happening all over the country. From a quick look, it looks like smaller areas have had their libraries closed, other libraries have had to take up the slack and open longer hours, thousands of qualified staff have been laid off, and mobile centres seem to have disappeared almost entirely. Which makes me worried about those communities, those immobile people, who are denied the thing that I have just discovered.

Where I used to live in Lambeth, Upper Norwood library is now funded outside the council, at least 6 mobile centres seem to have been lost, large branches have had their hours increased, smaller branches their hours cut, Waterloo and Streatham libraries may have to move and Streatham’s qualified staff all dismissed, other libraries at risk are Durning, Waterloo, South Lambeth, Minet and Carnegie (5 out of 11), West Norwood’s library is still closed, librarians jobs have been cut, £1.5 million has been cut from a budget of £6 million.

In Richmond where I now live, Ham, Hampton Wick and Kew libraries are all under threat with other libraries having to open longer hours, self-service is in all libraries, and £351k has been cut from the budget.

Do what you can to support London’s libraries – having discovered them I would be sad to see this bastion of community disappear. Check the website above for campaign groups such as Save Lambeth Libraries, or check out this page on what you can do to support libraries across the country.

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3 responses to “In praise of London’s libraries

  1. I honestly could not agree more. I re-discovered libraries recently and joined the one near my flat in Dalston – then stood there amazed for a bit that I could just march in, sign up, and then borrow books and music and films for free.

    Free! Nothing’s ever free! I’ve now set about boring anyone who’ll listen about how brilliant they are. Somehow they just seem to have slipped out of the public consciousness – I remember everyone being a member of the local library when I was little.

    • Glad I’m not the only one – quite agree, such an amazing treasure yet most people I know haven’t been since they were a kid. For those with children I’d say its a no brainer xx

      Ps is the dalston one well trendy?!

  2. You’ve inspired me to check out my local. And, to be fair, Shantaram took everyone a year, didn’t it? #hardwork :)

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