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We Can’t Lose Our Public Libraries—in Britain or America

by on April 19, 2016

The United States is far from the only country facing library closures and budget cuts. According to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy annual survey of libraries in Great Britain, there was a £50 million cut from library budgets across Britain in 2014–2015, and 106 libraries closed.[1] In The Guardian’s “Student” section, Greta Bellamacina recently made a strong argument for the importance of public libraries, particularly as a vital resource for students. Bellamacina recognizes the importance public libraries played in her own development—she says, “I absorbed a canon of books I could never have afforded to buy,”[2]—and she often observes students utilizing libraries. She was dismayed to hear people say that the closure of one north London library branch didn’t matter because kids use their own laptops and buy books on Amazon. “This is a middle-class perspective and it ignores the hundreds of kids in social housing in the Belsize Park area who do not necessarily have laptops or one-click Amazon accounts,” Bellamacina wrote.

While US library closures are not as staggering as Britain’s, we’re still losing them. The American Library Association’s State of America’s Libraries Report 2015 found “the number of states reporting library branch closures [was] only five this year. As in previous years, the number of closures in each state was between one and five libraries.”[3]

For many students, the public library is the only place they can go to access homework and research resources. The most recent Census numbers found that only 74.4 percent of US households have Internet access.[4] I spend much of my reference desk time from 3 p.m. on helping elementary students pull up homework assignments and search electronic encyclopedias and databases for their school work while their parents sit and look for jobs or access emails. It’s not just that librarians stand at the ready to help patrons access information, it’s that we have the tools and equipment needed to access much of that information, and not every household does.

My library branch is within walking distance to an elementary school, middle school, and a high school, and many of the older kids come straight to the library from school. Most of these kids come for a dedicated place to study—whether alone or with their classmates for group projects.

Bellamacina echoes a sentiment undoubtedly held by millions of library supporters across the United States: “It seems impossible to imagine education without libraries,” she wrote. “The library is not an idea, it is not an archetype, it is not endowment. Libraries are rooms. Rooms of hope, rooms of concentration, rooms of dream and study. They remain the last public spaces reserved for free and equal learning.”[5]


References:

[1] David Stone, “library funding cut by £50m,” press release by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy [website], December 9, 2015.

[2] Greta Bellamacina, “We can’t lose public libraries – they’re as crucial for students as ever,” Washington Post, February 5, 2016.

[3] American Library Association, Ed. Kathy S. Rosa, “The State of America’s Libraries 2015: A Report from the American Library Association,” American Libraries Magazine, April 2015, accessed March 24, 2016.

[4] Thom File and Camille Ryan, “Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013,” American Community Survey Reports, ACS-28 (U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2014), 2.

[5] American Library Association, Ed. Kathy S. Rosa, “The State of America’s Libraries 2015: A Report from the American Library Association,” American Libraries Magazine, April 2015, accessed March 24, 2016.


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