Unlike the libraries found in universities, schools, gentlemen’s clubs and millionaires’ homes, public libraries are open to everyone, and most people feel welcome in them – much like a cities’ streets, parks and squares. Public libraries are an example of social infrastructure at its most open and democratic. Swimming pools, adult education colleges, and museums are also often funded by local government and available to all, but access comes at a price. Libraries, on the other hand, are free.
Since lockdown began, Brits have been turning to reading as an escape from the emotional toll of the pandemic. UK book sales spiked by 6% within a week at the end of March and book clubs started popping up online. But not everyone in London can afford to buy books and those who turned to libraries during lockdown were met with closed doors.
Although libraries in most boroughs kept services running online, closures had significant impacts on Londoners. Students were restricted from study spaces during crucial exam periods. Children had fewer options to socialise with other kids and discover new books. Older residents were isolated in their homes, immigrants were forced to pause their English language studies and the list goes on.
Despite 72% of people in England saying that public libraries are important for their communities, our libraries are in a sorry state. Since 2010, there has been a 30% decline in spending on them. As London’s coronavirus recovery unfolds and libraries reopen, leaders have a chance to shift this trend. By recognising the benefits of libraries and tapping into the power of the existing system, London’s recovery can be made more robust.
Libraries can help ease the capital’s economic recovery, especially by supporting Londoners who are unemployed. Providing free access to books and technology, libraries can be a game changer for people who are struggling to apply for jobs, engage with professional networks, or gain new skills during this time. If libraries can maintain or improve the quality of their learning opportunities through virtual programs, London’s workforce can be strengthened during this difficult economic period. Further, as libraries begin re-evaluating staff roles, there is potential for policymakers to create jobs or voluntary opportunities for unemployed Londoners, especially for young people who are experiencing high levels of uncertainty about their professional lives.
Libraries, by design, also encourage citizens to engage in more environmentally sustainable behaviour. Locations are usually within walking or cycling distance for most people and they encourage a system of borrowing and reusing, as opposed to buying new from large retailers. For self-employed Londoners, the freedom and accessibility of libraries are a godsend. Instead of working out of cafes or home offices, where they may be expected to pay for the space, buy refreshments or be easily distracted, they can simply cycle to the library for a free (and quiet) option. As London moves forward with its plans for a green recovery, libraries are indispensable.
Libraries also play a large role in Londoners’ wellbeing and happiness. According to sociologist Eric Klinenberg, libraries are an effective approach to tackling polarisation and bridging differences between cultures. They provide space for citizens to discuss ideas freely and promote access to and the spread of factual knowledge in an age of fake news and misinformation.
For many, libraries are virtually the only public space in the capital where everyone is welcome, and interactions are not heavily policed. For homeless people and those who live in poverty, libraries are the one place where they know they will get help and have a warm place to peacefully spend a few hours. Libraries are open, welcoming public places that are built on trust and a genuine desire to make life better – characteristics that are difficult to find in today’s cities.
The pandemic has shed light on the fact that libraries are vital for cities to thrive. They must be actively invested in and championed by London’s policymakers. Leaders should support councils who are struggling to keep their libraries afloat and help turn locations into recovery hubs. In some cities, libraries are being used to distribute health resources, including face coverings, sanitiser, and wellness information. Some are using 3D printers to make masks and visors for healthcare workers, while others have been delegating staff to emergency roles, delivering masks and making phone calls to check on people. In the current crisis, libraries don’t just provide books, they also serve as a solution for unemployment, an antidote for mental health crises, and a respite from the rat race of life.
Navneet Gidda is Communications Officer at think tank Centre for London, on whose website this article first appeared. Read more from Vavneet here and follow her on Twitter. Image: A public library in Hounslow.
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