By G X Todd
Libraries have changed a lot over the past decade. On the surface, for anyone interested, our evolution is easy to follow: every library has a website now; they have leaflets and noticeboards and eager staff who promote their services; some of the best libraries even have entertaining social-media platforms. At our core, we’ve always been about books, about information, and providing it for free wherever possible and in the most accessible ways. But the modern library has branched out far beyond those staple needs. I could list everything we offer nowadays—job-seeking advice, homework clubs, cradle and toddler groups, over-50s clubs, writing groups, book clubs, LEGO workshops, computer classes, knit-and-natter groups—but the list would be endless. In essence, we’re a community hub in a society that is moving further and further away from being a community. But, most importantly, we’re a haven for people who are lost, or need help, or just want a friendly smile and a chat. Where else can you go where you’re always welcome and absolutely nothing is expected of you?
But all of that is on the surface. You can find any of that information with a click of a mouse, a dial of a phone number, a flick of a thumb on Twitter, or with a visit to your local library (if, indeed, you still have a local library). What I want to talk about instead is what has changed below the surface. The things that you, the public, don’t see, and are not told.
When I first began working for public libraries in 2002, it was a wonderful time. Libraries and cultural services were supported, both financially and politically. The enthusiasm and passion of staff was felt not only on the counters and on the library floor, but behind the closed doors of the work- and staff-rooms. It was a bubbling pot of laughter and fun. In short, it was a great place to work. In many ways, it’s still a great place to work, but behind those closed doors today there are many of us who have moved from anger, to despondency, to downright exhaustion. Over time, that indignant fury has settled like sediment in our bones. It doesn’t spark with fire anymore, but it burns steadily at low heat.
Library workers across the country have had six years of being at risk of losing our jobs and our libraries. Every year, we go through the same process of budget proposals, potential cuts, risk of redundancy letters, and consultation processes where we must ask all our customers to fill in questionnaires. Every year, we get nominated for cuts and every year we don’t know if we’ll even have a library or a job in six months’ time. A rolling process of insecurity, fear, frustration and helplessness. Helplessness because, as employees, we’re not allowed to canvas for support. We’re not allowed to have any personal opinion on what we think of our local government’s plans (as one example, it wants to cut 16 libraries down to one in a borough of 270,000 residents). On the surface, we smile and chat to customers as if everything is okay, because that is our job and if we don’t follow our Code of Conduct, there’s the serious threat of dismissal. You would never suspect how desperately depressed many library workers are and, worse, apathetic—and not simply because they may lose their monthly wage and have to re-enter the world of job-seeking, but because they love libraries and the very thing they love is systematically being decimated by bureaucrats who have little to no idea what libraries actually do.
So, day in and day out, I watch my colleagues who, not that long ago, were outgoing, vibrant workers. And it’s like seeing a tiger in a zoo, walking listlessly back and forth, the grass beneath its paws dead and turned to sand. That may sound dramatic, but it’s true. All they can do is go through the motions because they have become resigned to having that sword hanging over their heads. Of course, the passion and enthusiasm I witnessed upon entering libraries 14 years ago is still there—especially in front of the public—but behind the scenes the undercurrent of disillusionment is choking.
You also don’t know about the customers who ask, with genuine fear, if the service will be closing. The parents who can’t afford to buy their kids books; kids who, because they love to read so much, easily get through 15 books a week. The people who can’t afford to purchase their own computers or don’t have the internet at home. The unemployed who are desperate to work but lack the skills to create CVs or set up email accounts, and often lack interview experience. I know there are countless people out there who would be happy to see libraries shut, mainly people who, I dare say, have never used a library. But with all due respect, who are you to take a valued service away from others who need and want it? Sadly, I don’t visit parks and arboretums as often as I should, but would I want to stop others enjoying them? I’d like to think I’d never be so selfish in my views.
I work for the Mobile Libraries department, which is a slightly different kettle of fish, only insomuch as we deal with a larger percentage of our most vulnerable demographics. We take our vans to sheltered accommodation and retirement homes, schools, adult-education centres, as well as having weekly stops on public streets. If the van fits, we go there. If it doesn’t, we carry a crate of books to your front door. It is heartbreaking to see how isolated many of our elderly and disabled customers are: for some, we are the only people they see each month. Recently, my colleague came back to the office and told me about a woman who had been living and sleeping in her kitchen for two weeks because her heating hadn’t been working and it was the only warm room in the house. He got straight on the phone and made some calls. He made sure something was done. Our government treats these two groups of society so poorly, and here it is trying to strip away yet more services that improve their quality of life.
And what about the kids? Thousands of nursery and school visits to libraries every year, where library staff play a pivotal role in introducing children to reading for pleasure. These are children who will grow up with a love of reading, which will, in turn, improve their literacy levels, make them more empathic citizens, more creative, less depressed (because, yes, reading has also been shown to help improve mental health). I wouldn’t even be here, writing this article and writing books, if I hadn’t been introduced to free books at the age of 12 after setting foot inside my school library. The numerous advantages to having a well-run library service are documented and known, and yet they’re still being stripped to the bare bones.
What are we to do, then, when many library staff feel so at a loss that they can’t see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel? It means the rest of us need to be vocal. I’m expecting to get a severe wrist-slapping from my employers for writing this article: I’m not supposed to be speaking about these issues. But although my anger has been smothered into slow-burning ashes after years of uncertainty and helplessness in the face of such short-sighted austerity measures, I guess there’s still a little spark of rebellion somewhere inside me.
G X Todd is an author and librarian from the West Midlands, whose first book Defender (Headline) comes out January. Todd has worked in public libraries for 14 years and is currently based in the specialised mobiles unit, where she drives a 35ft library van as part of her duties.