Yvonne McEwen: Libraries play a vital role, so why all the cutbacks?

Libraries are an invaluable social resource. Picture: Getty
Libraries are an invaluable social resource. Picture: Getty
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For a considerable length of time concerns have been raised about the erosion of our public libraries. It has been argued that with the advent of the internet, information and publications previously found in our public libraries can now be sourced online. The internet has certainly opened up our access to information and learning and in Scotland and throughout the UK libraries have adapted to public need and demand.

However, it is not only our library access to the internet that enhances our knowledge. Nowadays you can visit a library and listen to musical recitals, poetry readings, view artworks, exhibitions and attend public lectures on a variety of topics. Furthermore, workshops are conducted on multiple themes and interests. For people requiring encouragement or additional support with learning, educational classes and resources are offered to support their needs.

Dr Yvonne McEwen. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Dr Yvonne McEwen. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Libraries are multicultural institutions and they now serve a multifunctional role in our communities. They were created on the basis of open-access and learning for all. They are and continue to be at the heart of communities. If we have taken them for granted, perhaps it is because we know they are the most constant, informal and enjoyable education resource we are fortunate to have in our lives.

With the many societal changes that have taken place, particularly over the past ten years, libraries have adapted to offer us more than access to education and culture. They have also become a vital lifeline to the less fortunate members of society. Now you can visit a library and gain access to information on benefit claims, go on-line and fill in benefit application forms, and with the assistance of librarians, receive help and guidance to literature on unemployment, health and social needs.

This was never the intended role of librarians but it has been visited on them by the politics of expediency. Instead of complaining and resorting to the ‘it’s not my job’ rhetoric they assist with good grace and with the full knowledge that vulnerable members of our society need support and guidance to access important information that is needed for their economic survival and wellbeing. Importantly, those who find themselves in a difficult or desperate situation recognise that the help they receive from libraries is based on respect and non-judgment of personal circumstances.

Furthermore, libraries now replace our old style community centres and they are an invaluable social resource for our communities. Many community libraries have established ‘gathering places’ where food and refreshments can be purchased and social conversation and debates are encouraged. Additionally they are social and emotional comfort zones for the lonely, bereaved and dispossessed.

However, despite their adaptation to societal changes, in the past few years libraries have undergone some dramatic cuts and more importantly without public consultation. There is, it could be argued, a decided lack of transparency in this matter. The erosion of such an important community resource will not be without consequence to the public and politicians alike. Perhaps, local councillors need to be really pressed by their constituents as to where they stand and vote on the library closure debate.

A classic example of the short-term policies towards our libraries can be seen in the city of Edinburgh. In the latest round of local authority cut-backs, libraries will be very badly affected. We have been assured there will be no closures, but what about a reduction in opening hours? There are public concerns regarding access times to the City of Edinburgh’s Central Library, the main public library. At present Central Library is open 51 hours a week, but compare this with the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, which is open 60 a week. Apart from being the main city library, Central Library is the face of Edinburgh City Libraries and it attracts a great deal of UK and overseas visitors.

This long-established library and thousands like it in Scotland and further afield, need to be rescued from the political ‘here and now’ chants of economic expediency, and the vagaries of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians. It is somewhat ironic that in this whole sorry saga of library closures it was the city of Edinburgh that received the first UNESCO City of Literature accolade.

Dr Yvonne McEwen is a First World War historian and for eight years she has been working with the library services throughout Scotland and other parts of the UK on World War I projects