Ashley Pearce is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading. Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading. He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.
Author Zadie Smith described libraries as “absolutely essential” and Alan Bennett when one further by saying closing them was tantamount to child abuse. Whilst this may be an exaggerated sentiment, there is no doubt that libraries are an emotive issue. In an ideal world, libraries would be thriving. They would be well-funded, modern and consistently used by the local community. But this is not an ideal world and I am afraid they are not. I believe Libraries can and should be a vital, well-used resource by the local community, but this does not mean they are. Just to be clear, I want libraries to remain open, but I also want them to be used. Many discussions on libraries remind me of when Woolworths shut:
“Oh that’s a shame” people would say, and I would then ask,
“When did you last buy something there?”
“Oh years ago, but I used to and others like it.”
Library usage is down across the country by 40m visits since 2010 and there are now only 9.8m regular users. This is a halving of the rate of library usage since 1997. Libraries are facing funding cuts year after year from this government and this has meant library closures, staff cuts and a drop in the books on offer. It could be argued usage is down because the service is down (lack of supply leading to fall in demand). But as an economist this is always unlikely and is probably not the case here either. There is a lot of sentiment about libraries and I get why. There have been many successful and justifiable campaigns to keep libraries open. But we need more than this. We can’t, and should not, want to go back to an open and empty library.
A friend and colleague of mine said he had recently gone into a local library to browse some books whilst waiting for an appointment and said it was “like going back in time”. Whilst this may seem unfair, many libraries are an unwelcoming space. The buildings are often old, empty, draughty and grey. This needs to change. Near my school there has always been a local coffee shop. It was completely under used and very often empty when I walked past it every day. Last year a Costa coffee opened and an amazing thing happened. Lots and lots of students from my school went there. It wasn’t that the students didn’t want a place to sit, chat and drink coffee, it was that they didn’t want to do it in the unfriendly outdated coffee shop. There are now at least half a dozen school students in there every time I walk past.
Libraries can learn from this it seems to me. There is often a bit of “in my day” about library usage, with an older generation looking down at a younger generation for not using the beloved vital resource of the local library. But times change. Libraries can seem a bit like an analogue system in a digital age. My colleague and fellow economics teacher at my school said to me earlier this year that he can’t get our sixth formers to watch Channel 4 news (a great source of economics information!) as he always has in the past. But there was a report out recently saying that for the first time children spend more time in front of a computer or tablet screen than they do a TV screen. Children have different habits. They can watch and access what they want when they want without moving. I always remember being set some homework in year 7 when I was at school to find out what something was for history. I was a good student so went to the school library but couldn’t find it so searched through some old books at home where I found a paragraph on what I needed so copied it out onto paper. What a waste of time. If that homework was set now I would complete the homework before leaving the classroom.
If we want a new generation of people to enjoy libraries as we may have done we need to find a new way. People expect instant access and next day Amazon delivery. Only 48% of libraries even have WiFi. People expect to be able to sit in a welcoming space and relax whilst researching or reading, libraries being combined into coffee shops or community spaces may help this. A wider range of e-books; better marketing; more welcoming décor; easier use websites, and an on demand book service are all things that may be needed. But something has to be done for libraries to survive another 20 years, because if the same pattern happens again, there will be no users by 2030.