If a group of people were asked to conjure up and describe their image of what a library is, these imaginings and descriptions would be as multifarious as the types of libraries that exist. For some, public libraries are a place of astonishing beauty and serenity, which musters a sense of disbelief that this service is free and that a member of staff will not just march up to you and ask you for an ID. For others, libraries are a place of social inclusion – one of the few places remaining where people can gather and spend as much time as they like, without the expectation of spending any money. Libraries can also become a second home in stressful times during school and third-level – a quiet sanctuary which cradles futures in its hands.
For me, the library has meant different things at different stages of life. The Ballyroan library in Rathfarnham was a second home as a child, one filled with finger puppets and the magical world of story time. In primary school, when the end of day bells chimed, the Clonakilty library was a safe place where our parents trusted my friends and I to go to do our homework and where we excited in rare glimpses of boys (oh the joys of all-girls schools!). In university, different libraries meant different things to me – if I had a free hour and fancied feeling productive I would head to Trinity’s bright and cosy Lecky library, but if I needed to get an essay written in a record amount of time, I would head straight to the fourth floor of the sometimes intimidatingly quiet Ussher library. And now, living in a tiny apartment in Japan where I don’t have the physical space or budget to justify buying a new book every week, my local library’s English section has proved a reliable source of trusty companions.
The concept of public libraries, were it to be suggested today, would be deemed financially irrational at best and ludicrous at worst. While we often take our public libraries for granted, they are a public service that originates in a bygone era of public optimism which we need to hold onto and cherish. Despite statistics showing time and again that libraries give a high return on their investment, libraries are often the first sector to receive cuts in public spending in times of austerity. It is in these trialling times that libraries should receive additional support and funding in order to help people access the internet in order to upskill and apply for jobs, access free books, and have a warm place to simply be and not need to spend money.
While reading The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, a book largely set in a library, I was struck by the importance of libraries as a place for people on the fringes of society to exist freely. The only other widely available public space where people can be without the expectation of spending anything are parks, and they are not sheltered from the elements and are not always safe. While it is sad that it has had to enter the remit of librarians, many local authorities across the UK and US have taken initiative and begun pilot schemes to train librarians in working with homeless people.
Libraries are also spaces of integration. Many parents, in particular mothers, can feel isolated in the early months and years of their children’s life. Libraries can provide the opportunity to meet other parents at a similar stage of life while also mutually benefiting their children through creative stimulation. Computer literacy is now considered an elementary skill and an inability to use computers and the Internet is a form of social exclusion and even a barrier to democracy. Libraries across Ireland and the world have helped to bridge this IT literacy gap. There is a strong correlation between age and IT illiteracy, and these training sessions have also helped to counteract a lot of loneliness that can exist in older communities.
While examining the innumerable benefits libraries can bring to individuals’ lives is heartening and will hopefully inspire some people to renew a lapsed library membership, it is important to look at the aggregate worth of libraries. Libraries are ultimately democratising institutions, acting as a societal leveller. In a lecture given a decade ago, but no less relevant today, writer Neil Gaiman revealed that the prison industry in the US uses an algorithm to predict how many prison cells will be needed based on how many 10 and 11 year olds can’t read.
Bluntly put, reading literally leads to freedom.
While reading the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (which was also coincidentally prefaced by Neil Gaiman), I was struck by the image of how the members of society had relinquished their freedoms through their disuse and eventual banning of books. The rebels each memorised a single book’s contents in their minds in order to create some hope of not losing an entire history and culture. Books provide a link between the living and the dead, which keeps the roots of culture alive.
Speaking at the launch of Library Week 2010, Seamus Heaney said: “Behind the word ‘library’ stands the Latin word liber, meaning ‘a book’; but there is another liber word in the Latin language which means ‘free’ and which stands behind the English words ‘liberty’ and ‘liberation’. So the link I’m suggesting between the general literacy of a population and the proper functioning of a democracy is already implicit in the foundations of the language.” If your sense of the existence of a benevolent society ever falters, remember that a service which is completely free (most libraries have even abolished late fees) holds the key to intrinsic societal freedom. If that doesn’t bolster your sense that society can be an okay place sometimes, I don’t know what will.