For National Libraries Week, East of the M60 looks at why public libraries have an important role in the 21st century

Dukinfield Library, Concord Way, Dukinfield
The first love for many bibliophiles: your local library, such as Dukinfield Library on Concord Way, which opened in November 1984.

Thank goodness for public libraries. With a parent or primary school teacher, they have helped ten of millions of Britons (or billions around the world) to get hooked on reading. Some, like this gentleman, have chosen the TV Times or the Manchester Evening News as their gateway drug (prior to borrowing their first book). Each day, many people call in for their literary fix. They come back for more every three weeks, sometimes carrying up to twelve items with them.

Whether Jackie Collins, Lewis Carroll or O.S. Nock, they can get sucked into a world of uncharted lands, plot lines, or travel back in time. Its mind altering substances, in hardback, paperback, or large print forms, are the written word. A psychosomatic substance for the theatre of the mind, dependent on one’s chosen interests.

Other mind altering effects of repeated library visits include:

  • A lifelong habit of casual reading: anywhere from the lavatory to the rammed 0746 train for Liverpool Lime Street;
  • Serendipity: apart from shopping, libraries encourage serendipitous browsing. You could be looking for a book on model railways and leave home with a book on The Chuckle Brothers’ life in showbusiness;
  • A likelihood of being able to find your dream job;
  • A small but significant step towards Higher Education and continued study beyond postgraduate level;
  • Unwavering creativity, subject to supporting fringe events. For example, poetry groups or children’s literacy groups under titles like Time for a Rhyme.

What’s more, the buildings can inspire you to learn. If you have Manchester’s Central Library on your doorstep, the airiness of its Social Sciences library in the centre is amazing. Without a doubt, it is one of the finest places for private study. Of today’s more modern libraries, the newest one in Rochdale has fine views of the River Roch and the sleek bus interchange opposite (great for catching the 409 bus home). Oldham’s central library is an excellent facility with lecture rooms and good study spaces. The reference library looks out towards Glodwick, Lees, and Saddleworth.

The first library I remember entering was Dukinfield’s previous library on Town Lane. Houses are now on the site. Its present day successor (which opened in November 1984) had more of an effect on me. I loved the modern decor with the state-of-the-art digital clock above the loans desk by the entry gates.

There was no room for a café; instead, there was a little seating area in the lobby next to a vending machine. I never tried the beverages but you could have coffee, tea, hot chocolate, tomato soup, vegetable soup, and a cold orange squash drink. Anyone familiar with the Klix/Maxpax machines needn’t be reminded of the flimsy cups or hot temperatures of a scolding coffee.

For the six-year-old S.V., it seemed space age. The exposed brick, coupled with low corner settee seating and a coffee table, was the nearest I got to visiting the TV-am studios in Hawley Crescent. I never saw Gyles Brandreth popping in to borrow Dynamite Dan for his ZX Spectrum either. (Oh and Tameside MBC couldn’t afford the services of its architect Sir Terry Farrell and Partners; adding eggcups wouldn’t have been a good use of ratepayers’ money). Apart from that, I could read the British Rail Timetable in the reference section. I could borrow Escape from New York or Teenwolf for a modest fee.

Yes, my Mum and Dad made me do this (and thank goodness they did)

I owe it to them for getting me to the library from an early age. Every good parent should do that for their children. Early as possible. Not only in the act of borrowing books and improving computer literacy, also in the participation of community events. For example: storytelling sessions; creative writing groups; and the chance to meet an author or two.

For many people, the public library is a way out from the tedium around us. In some places, they are the only significant public building besides the town hall. Increasingly, they are inside town halls thanks to spending cuts. They are a sanctuary from today’s icons of private wealth (retail parks, expensive coffee shops), superstores and public houses. If you are lonely, a well staffed library offers you company. Not only librarians but also fellow readers.

Whether you are placed at the top or bottom end of the wealth scale, they are a necessary part of our public services. Like the bins, our streets, Social Services departments, and the environmental health department. Not least the improvement on mental health: this has been expressed in an article by The Reading Agency, in relation to World Mental Health Day (10 October).

In poorer areas, public libraries are a must. More than a necessity: a chance to enable residents to better themselves and/or improve their locality. Thanks to local government spending cuts, the areas where public libraries are most needed have come off worst. Opening hours have been cut; co-location instead of closure have been the saviour of some libraries. Community ownership: with Friends of… type groups, have been another saviour.

As an avid reader and visitor to many libraries in Greater Manchester (and further afield), there is one thing you cannot accuse libraries of not doing. Reinvention. Moving with the times.

Moving with the times

Ultimately, public libraries have two goals: one is to educate; another is to entertain. In part, the media has changed but the core message remains the same. Over the last fifty years this has also meant recorded music, video cassettes, DVDs, computer software titles (from Acorn Electron to ZX81), and e-books. Oh, and this strange thing called the internet.

Since the late 1990s, more space has been allocated for computer terminals. Not only for browsing on the internet but also job hunting. Also for typing reports, CVs, dissertations, and covering letters. Traditionalists may balk such new fangled additions but for many people, their first and foremost reason for nipping to the library. Plus you could renew books over t’internets these days. With e-books, you don’t even need to (gasp!) visit a public library.

This is where the internet can be a curse as well as a blessing. For some people, the internet means no more trips to the public library. Even with the World Wide Web, we still need public libraries for authoritative sources of information. Like newspapers, you cannot believe everything you read in cyberspace. We also need to see real people now and again, and share our interests socially. In person, rather than pixel form. If you need to do your homework in a quieter environment than your bedroom, there is only one place to go.

“…We also need to see real people now and again…”

Why would you go to the library instead of your smartphone? Why would you choose a library over the public house? One is a willingness to learn. Another is to get out of our comfort zone for an hour or two. With the latter, leaving the house for a walk to the library can be a tremendous feat. Performing your own poetry in front of ten to twenty others in a similar position, equally so. In the former, we could learn from fellow speakers, learn a new language in our own time, and see real people. In the flesh.

It is quicker to pick up a paper timetable for the 346 route instead of going online. With the use of exhibition space (or permanent art galleries), a chance for artistic inspiration. As part of (or as) a principal landmark in many towns and villages, the best place for holding Jobs Fairs or public consultations. Co-located with hack spaces or serviced office space for business start-ups, a useful facility for personal or professional research. With a sports centre, a good place to feed your mind as well as your keeping your body in tip-top condition.

To ensure libraries stay part of our communities in years to come, we need more community events to entice new members. This means bringing stories to life, something that the internet cannot do, even with the fastest connections or clearest video footage. Also puppet shows, workshops, and lectures – even if it means tying in with popular television programmes to ensure mass appeal. A return to the Mechanics Institutes of old, whether in the public sector or the third sector.

Perhaps there’s a case for more libraries instead of fewer libraries. Either as standalone facilities or co-located with other buildings. For example: village halls; community centres; sports centres; even clinics. If you’re carrying twelve hardback books, would you prefer to a) catch a bus to the borough’s central library; or b) a five minute walk from home? Give me the latter any day, as part of a borough-wide network.

National Libraries Week runs from the 09 – 14 October 2017.

S.V., 09 October 2017.

3 thoughts on “Public Libraries: As Good Today As They Have Ever Been

  1. Reblogged this on Funnylass's Blog and commented:
    The perfect complement to my meanderings last night at Dukinfield Library – as we celebrate Library Week. Stuart – the best n’brightest autie writer in the UK – grew up a stone’s throw from me. It was wonderful to have him chipping in with the exact dates of my own municipal memories – and even more fabulous to read that he feels the same way as I do;
    Libraries are needed more than ever.
    The perfect community base for Entertainment and Learning; ‘story-telling’ being the common theme.
    And a hearty thanks to all parents who force their kids into these buildings. *It could be the best thing that you EVER do, folks…*


  2. I was encouraged to join Oldham libraries by my Mum forty odd years ago. Still going strong today. Oldham central library is a credit to the town. A perfect day includes taking the kids for a schmooze round the books and art gallery, finished off by a film at the small cinema. Love the place.


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