With schools, hospitals and social care all under pressure, why should we care about libraries? The case for them cannot be made on the basis of nostalgia – and there is no question they have to bear their fair share of cuts. But libraries have a progressive mission that is often undervalued, and that is more valuable than ever at a time of recession. Indeed, in many ways they embody the sort of society Fabians want to see.
I believe libraries have a deeply practical impact. With an estimated six million British adults functionally illiterate – at a cost to the economy of up to £81bn – libraries’ well-documented role in developing reading skills is not a luxury. Nor is their work on digital access – they helped more than a million people get online last year. And modern libraries help in a host of other ways – anything from Baby Rhyme Time to Knit and Knatter programmes, by way of job clubs and homework groups.
And that impact has a strong element of social justice. It is no coincidence that library use and equality are closely correlated around the world (though the increasingly unequalUKis an exception). Illiteracy hits the least well-off hardest. An astounding one in three British children does not own a single book: the cost of buying rather than borrowing puts them beyond the reach of many families. Meanwhile around 23 per cent of households still lack an internet connection, with almost half of them citing a lack of money or skills as the main obstacle.
Libraries represent a fundamental principle of equality of access to information, one that is especially important in a knowledge economy. But they also represent a unique, truly democratic space, to which everyone has equal access, where you are not being sold anything, and where you go to pursue your own interests and development. That is something not even a school or hospital can offer. Libraries have an intangible but real impact as a visible expression of these values: they are a signal of what sort of society we are, and the value we place on them is a signal of the sort of society we want to be.
But this does not seem to be the sort of society pursued by the current government. For the Tories, the community role of libraries seems to be mainly a chance to make savings and shuffle off responsibility onto volunteers. Instead they should be champions for the value of libraries: making libraries stronger, more connected, better at reaching out to those who don’t use them and more relevant to their needs. The idea that libraries are irrelevant is nonsense; the idea they could have a greater impact is certainly not.
Dan Jarvis is MP for Barnsley Central and shadow culture minister.
This article was originally published in the Fabian Society’s Summer edition of the Fabian Review. It forms part of the Fabian Society’s Next State project. We’ll be publishing other articles from the series this week.