I remember being a child of about five or six, when my mother would take me to the local library to read books about sharks, or to watch The Magic School Bus on enormous grey computers.
However, since then I can honestly say that the only time I’ve set foot in libraries is on university campuses, to use the quiet spaces provided in order to revise or write. I’m not the only one of my generation; according to one leading statistics company, those in their early to mid-twenties by far make up the lowest proportion of library visitors. In fact, only a quarter of this age group actually set foot in a public library at least once in the whole of 2016.
Why is this? We all know what libraries are, and what services they offer, so why are people so reluctant to use them? Since moving to Southampton last year, I walked past the Central Library in town at least twice a week, not once even stopping to give it a second glance, blind to the wealth of books that lay inside. I love to read, and the idea of spending ten pounds every time I wanted to try out a new title made my student budget quiver. So, after months of hesitation, I decided to join the library.
It truly is amazing that the gift of government-funded libraries is being taken for granted, and it’s causing a real problem in the U.K. The funding that libraries are receiving is plummeting; a £25m budget decrease between 2015 and 2016 meant that 121 public libraries closed over the same period. But in the same instance, the cuts aren’t really that much of a surprise when you consider that the numbers of visitors to libraries between 2012 and 2016 dropped by 16.4%.
I’m still trying to work out why people are becoming less inclined to use the library. One prevailing theory is that the problem may begin in childhood; surveys have shown that once a child can read for themselves, only 2% of parents continue to read with or to them. With people having to work harder and longer hours, perhaps parents feel like they don’t have the necessary time to read with their child if they can already read themselves, and therefore they miss out on instilling an active desire for books. But it’s not just parents that are feeling the time constraints, teachers are as well. According to the same article, two thirds of teachers claim that they don’t have long enough within the school day to encourage reading a variety of books. This, coupled with an apparent pressure to push forward reading as a skill that needs to be mastered, rather than a hobby that can be appreciated, is resulting in less children reading for fun. There’s a good chance that this will then translate into them using their spare time for other interests, such as a smartphones and tablets (which child wants to read a black and white book when they could have a whole world of interactive colours at their fingertips?).
Ironically, if a drive towards improving reading skills at school does cause children to take less of an interest in reading in their spare time, it could be negatively impacting their brains. A cohort study of more than 17,000 people in the UK looked at whether reading books for fun as a child affects your performance on cognitive tests at age sixteen. The experiment was standardised to people of a similar economic class, all born within the exact same week, in order to remove any factors that could potentially interfere with the results. The conclusion of these tests, as it were, was that the more a child reads for fun, the greater the intellectual prowess. But this doesn’t just include vocabulary and spelling skills. Amazingly, participants who read more also demonstrated increased skills in mathematics! How? It’s not known for sure, but the authors of the study theorise that it may be due to a link between taking pleasure out of reading, and “promoting a more self-sufficient approach to learning in general”. Whatever the link is, the study intends to follow up the participants until the far later age of forty-two, and may further help our understanding of just how important reading from a young age can be.
But I’ve gone off topic. As important as I think it is that everybody should read for pleasure, I want to get back to the services that public libraries offer, which extend beyond the loaning out of books, audiobooks, DVDs, and games. Libraries are very community driven institutions, and some play a large role in the local neighbourhood. An example of this is community events and clubs; most libraries often host events for members of the public, members or not. Such events may include after school clubs for children, summer reading competitions, book signings with local authors, language classes, job interview preparation, and anything else that the staff can think of to bring people together.
However, one of the main reasons that you may see people going in and out of your local library is for access to the computers. Since the U.N. declared that access to the internet should be a human right, the number of people regularly using it in the UK is on the up. According to the Office for National Statistics, 90% of households are online (as of August this year). Despite this encouraging number, it still means that over six and a half million people can’t access the internet from their own homes. This is a huge number to be without what is now considered a human right. Being able to get online is required nowadays for most simple tasks, such as applying for jobs, paying for bills, and even in much of education. In this day and age, it’s simply unacceptable that so many people don’t have a computer. Local libraries provide basic access to the internet for anybody who can’t get it at home, or for those who are without a house entirely.
Libraries also provide a safe, warm place for Britain’s homeless to spend some of their time. A quick search online will reveal some heart-warming stories of people who live on the streets, coming into public libraries to use the computers to apply for jobs, to use books to provide themselves with an education and so on. It’s case studies like this that really highlight the good that a well-funded public library can provide to the local community.
Despite all of this, at its core a library is about the lending of books. Whether this is for educational purposes or just for pleasure, almost everybody in the UK has access to thousands of books at no cost. Several months into my membership, and I cannot stress how amazing it is. All of the books that I could possibly want, for free? It’s truly astonishing. So far, after being a member for three months, I haven’t been without a small pile of books sitting on my desk, waiting to be read.
I implore everyone to get out there and join the library. Not only will you get all the joys of reading, but it will make a statement that we want these buildings to stay. We look likely to lose nearly 350 libraries between 2016-2021 because of drastic cuts to funding, and many communities are set to suffer as a consequence. Check out your local library and see what services they offer that you can benefit from.