Save Our Libraries!

It is Save Our Libraries Day today, and I’m sitting in Newcastle City Library. It is a spacious, brightly lit building. At the same table as me are an elderly gentleman wearing a Newcastle United scarf and doing meticulous research on British royal families, and a skinny goth girl absorbed in a novel. There is WiFi here, though I haven’t bothered to ask about the access details. People are coming and going, browsing books, using computers, looking up local information and bus time tables. The staff are friendly and helpful.
The map of planned library closures doesn’t list anything for Newcastle, and there are no actions planned here today, but I thought it appropriate to wander up here, pay my fines (£2.82 – the price of being both selfish and forgetful about returning some books a couple of months ago) and talk to the staff to see if they knew anything about planned closures and changes to the library service in Newcastle.
The librarian who collected my fines (and very helpfully pointed out that I could renew books both by phone and online) says that eight libraries across the city are planned to be turned into “express libraries”: limited self-service sort of places with no staff, possibly combined with other agencies like community centres. It is not clear yet which eight, and the plans are supposed to be implemented some time between April and September. The librarian is clearly worried by this but tries to be as factual in her account as possible.
This kind of vandalism is going on all around the country: libraries planned to be closed, hours reduced, skilled and experienced staff cut to be replaced by volunteers. Now, perhaps our millionaire-riddled government can be forgiven for thinking that the library is where Papa smokes his cigars, but for the rest of us, libraries are a vital part of our community. They provide a place of learning, meeting spaces, access to important documents and information, access to the Internet, a way of participating in our society, a source of inspiration, cultural events and exhibitions, and a myriad other benefits and services to everyone in our community.
Libraries have been a second home for me for over two decades now. I actually still remember signing up for the library in my primary school. I had to get my parents to sign a form saying they would pay for any books I lost or damaged. My Dad sat me down and explained that, while he would sign the form, looking after the books I took out from the library was my responsibility and he did not expect me to lose or damage them. I was seven years old. I am 29 now, and I have yet to lose or damage a library book, late fines notwithstanding.
When we moved to Austria I was horrified to find that my new primary school didn’t have a library. I made extensive use of both our local city library and the libraries in all of my secondary schools, occasionally even skipping class to sit in the library and read instead. This was a time when most of my pocket money went on books, but there was so much more to the libraries than that. There were books I couldn’t buy because they weren’t available in Austria (pre-Amazon!) or because they were out of print; there was space to sit and think; I could take a risk and read a book I was unsure about spending money on. My school library was where I first got on the Internet – I would come in early and spend the hour before the first lesson on the Web, occasionally joined by my art teacher who was Canadian and used the computers to stay in touch with family and friends. I remember being taken by my IB German teacher to the National Library in Vienna – a vast building full of reading rooms, where most of the actual books were kept in underground archives, and you had to go through index card catalogues and request the book you wanted to be brought up for you.
The next library that truly became my home was at the University of Bath. A five-level, glass-fronted building, its front half houses computer terminals for student use, while the rear is full of books and journals. (Legend has it that the architects didn’t quite realise how heavy books were, and that if they filled the whole place with just books, it would collapse.) I practically lived in that place for four years. I roamed the compact shelving in the basement in search of old academic journals, I used the microfilm readers to look up obscure economic data, I spent my nights on the Internet, chatting to far-away friends and avoiding my coursework until 3 o’clock on the morning of the deadline, and when it came to writing up my dissertation, I banned my boyfriend from the building and camped out at a terminal with a sign next to me asking my friends to please go away until I was done.
Emotionally attached to Bath though I am, my favourite library in the world is Berlin State Library (the new building in Potsdammer Strasse). From the outside, the building is a 1970s concrete monstrosity. Once inside, though, you find yourself in a well-lit space, on multiple levels, with balconies connected by stairs and walkways. It is absolutely stunning. Unlike in the Viennese National Library, some of the books are directly accessible (though by far not the full 10 million). There are reading rooms, as well as smaller desks and reading areas hidden in between the book shelves. It is quiet and serene, a temple to learning. I did part of the research for my MA thesis there, and I wish I could have spent a lot more time there than I did.
To this day, I cannot enter a library without feeling a sense of awe as well as happiness. There is something about a building full of books, a space dedicated to human knowledge and achievement, that I find incredibly inspiring. It doesn’t matter if it is the small community library in Heaton or the State Library in Berlin – they both open windows to other worlds for all of us. Conversely, closing libraries is like closing minds, closing doors on opportunities.
I joined Newcastle City Libraries a few months ago when I needed to do some research for a piece of writing, after several years of not having a library card. Every time I’ve been to the City Library it’s been a delightful experience (even when I’ve had to pay fines), and I have found new and exciting books, or learned something new. Losing access to these spaces and resources would have a detrimental impact on me, and on the local community here in Newcastle. Don’t let it happen.

2 thoughts on “Save Our Libraries!

  1. Christine

    Thank you so much for letting us know what’s going on! I’m really shocked to hear, the day after #savelibraries day, of the very quiet demise of 8 Newcastle libraries and their librarians in favour of joint service/self service centres with, I imagine, a few books and no qualified librarians. I can ONLY imagine of course, because there hasn’t been a public announcement or any press coverage to let us know…funny that!
    So where do we go from here?

  2. Milena Popova

    Where do we go from here?
    I think we try to get as much information as possible. I found this out by speaking to a librarian for about 30 seconds. I think it’s worth going into as many of the libraries as we can cover and speaking to people in there – both librarians and the general public – to find out what’s going on exactly and how people feel about it. Then we try to get some local media coverage. You up for it?


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