Public libraries were established 170 years ago by the Victorians in the spirit of making information and learning accessible to all, an ethos which continues today. Devastatingly, 773 libraries were closed between 2010 and 2019 – casualties of national austerity, budget cuts, and, one assumes, a lack of foresight on the part of decision makers.
Another contributing factor is the decline of user numbers – fewer people are borrowing now than in previous times, possibly because of the rise of internet use and free ebooks.
Closing libraries (politely termed “restructuring”), exchanging knowledgeable staff for volunteers and reducing opening times are all ways to limit public access to libraries, playing into the hands of leaders who want to cut library funding. But reducing library services is a short-sighted approach, and a loss of opportunity to nurture the future.
Fortunately, Surrey continues to provide an excellent service, with most of its libraries run by experienced staff, as well as back office teams providing a range of information and digital support. Let’s look at some of the main services the libraries provide.
At the most basic level, libraries provide people with books, making a very important contribution to reading and learning in their locality. If there is a book you want to read, you can borrow it for free from the library. If it’s on loan, you can reserve it to borrow when it comes back in. If it isn’t anywhere in the Surrey library system, the library will usually order it for you from the publisher. You can also download e-books and e-magazines via RB Digital – an invaluable service when libraries have been forced to close during this year’s lockdowns.
Computer services are another important aspect of Surrey’s library offering and are well used. Library members can use computers for free, and Surrey libraries all have free wi-fi too, so you can take your own device and surf, study or work at the library. I’ve used the computer service a lot – it’s a quiet(ish) place to work if home is noisy, and a godsend if you’ve recently moved house and haven’t got your internet connection set up yet. Many others using the computers and wi-fi are studying. I’ve also seen entrepreneurs at work, even using library resources to design their leaflets and business cards. Library members can access the business resource COBRA for free, tapping into support with business ideas, funding and more. It’s clear that people with the drive to succeed are taking some important steps using library support.
Libraries have a softer side too. They’re safe, warm, indoors and free to visit – a boon to people of all ages and from all walks of life. In normal times, the library is the place to renew your bus pass, pick up events information, collect course guides for local colleges and read council publications. Rhyme Time is a popular toddler group with music and stories, not just entertaining the children but also giving parents ideas to help their children develop language and enjoy books. Never was this so important – since the advent of smartphones, special needs relating to speech and language have been on the rise.
Libraries support authors and illustrators too. You might think that borrowing a book from the library instead of buying it in a bookshop means the author loses a sale, but I’m delighted to tell you you’re wrong! Authors and illustrators can apply for Public Library Remuneration, by which they receive payment for their work according to the number of times their books are borrowed.
So, why are libraries important? They are important because they supply free access to books and knowledge, from conventional learning to business skills to broader understanding in the community. A well-run library nurtures the future, supporting students, business people, families and authors. Surrey libraries have proved stalwart so far, but we live in uncertain times. Wherever you live, the best way to protect your library is by using it. Borrow books, use the computers, access digital material – most services are free and every loan helps spell out to councils just why libraries are worth keeping.
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- Book Heart: Pixabay