I love libraries, and I always have. As a child the local library represented a space where I could access any story I wanted, discovering many new things along the way. There was always something new to learn, and new books through which to do it. Now, as an adult, I’ve come to realise just how vital they are to building better futures. Let’s talk about why.
Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
The benefits of libraries
Before we look at the really practical benefits of libraries, it’s important to consider how vital access to books, to a wide variety of stories, is key to empathy building. There is a talk by Neil Gaiman, in which he outlines this empathy building, and how it allows us to imagine and create better futures:
When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
Free access to vast swathes of books, a variety of perspectives and stories, is a key component to this. Libraries are a cornerstone to building the equitable and just worlds we need to imagine, because they help us develop the tools to do this.
Beyond that, let’s look at some of the other benefits:
Free accessible education
A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.
Libraries are one of the most accessible and safe educational spaces out there, with nearly everything free to use. We often think about this in the context of children. Studies suggest reading books improves life chances and using a library improves children’s reading abilities. Libraries can be important spaces that help children learn, engage with community, and cultivate curiosity.
But libraries are key sites for adults too. As well as the items we know about, such as books and newspapers, many libraries also house e-books, music, audiobooks, DVD and blu-rays, and access to online libraries or databases. They often provide free wi-fi and access to computers, printers and photocopying, alongside services such as summer reading programmes, author talks and events, tutoring, classes, and a generally quiet place to study. No matter your socioeconomic status, age or ability, a library can provide the resources and information you need.
A key part of this is librarians themselves. Often librarians are trained in high-level research, supporting a variety of professions and interests each day, from the passions of children to niche research for adults. They can provide knowledge and point researchers in the right direction, while also operating as safe, supportive figures in the community.
According to the ALA, librarians in public and academic libraries across the country answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week… Librarians help their patrons not only find their next reading selection, but they also answer questions about computer and internet training, job applications and resume writing, and filling out government forms, including tax and health insurance paperwork, all of it for free.
A safe space
Libraries both provide a safe space for those who need shelter, and offer support to anyone in need. They can operate as learning centres, provide support to those looking for employment or who need help filling in paperwork, and often can point people towards other local resources and assistance they may need, such as housing help. Local shelters often partner with libraries in various communities, making these resources more accessible to those who need them.
Libraries also provide support and resources for several marginalised groups. Libraries can act as safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth, with supportive libraries able to offer allyship.
NYPL offers programs for LGBTIQ adults and teens, including an annual anti-prom designed for high school students who may not feel welcomed and included at a traditional school-based prom. The NYPL also maintains a blog that connects readers with LGBTIQ resources and information.
Libraries connect communities as they act as centralised hubs for resources. Whether you’re a child, elderly, a new parent, unemployed, new to the country/area, or just a reader, the library is the place to go. They often house up to date information on events and programmes in the area, and contact details for local services. Some may even provide fitness classes such as yoga, or hold health fairs. In the USA they can even bring professionals to provide health checkups for those who can’t afford them.
Libraries also address many social concerns. They’re inherently sustainable: promoting an economy of sharing, reduced consumption and reusing resources to keep them in circulation for as long as possible. Beyond this, librarians are often able to identify local needs, because they constantly interact with such a wide representation of their local community. This puts them in prime position to both bring attention to these needs and also partner with local organisations and government to find solutions.
PIL’s “Library Lunches,”part of the Summer Food Service Program, is a compelling example of how a library recognized a social need, brought it to the attention of the community, and partnered with local agencies to address an important issue—how to provide meals for hundreds of hungry kids.
Despite being free to access, libraries play a key role in strengthening local economies. They provide a work space for freelancers, support people looking for employment, and can offer job and interview training for those in need.
According to the ALA, 73% of public libraries assist their patrons with job applications and interviewing skills, and 48% provide access and assistance to entrepreneurs looking to start a business of their own. In many cases, like the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, local governments work together with libraries to help small business owners by providing them with online and in-person resources, including financial guidance, contract opportunities, market information, business plans, and much more.
Through supporting individuals and small businesses, libraries help entire communities boost their local economy.
A library is also economically efficient itself. Return on investment has been measured at more than 600%, libraries in Australia have been found to return $3.56 for every $1 spent, and the UK overview on the value of public libraries can be found here. They’re excellent stewards of public money, using budgets carefully to support those who need it most.
In under 2 years if we had bought all the books we borrowed from the library we would have spent an estimated £3400, this works out roughly as a book habit of £150 a month, definitely not something we could afford.
Libraries help many people learn languages through both classes and materials such as books, audiobooks, and online resources. Many libraries in English speaking countries offer multilingual books for adults and children that are designed to help new English learners, while many are also expanding their collection of non-English books to help create more accessible environments.
As well as being useful for anyone interested in learning second or third languages, these options are also vital for those who may be new to the area/country and aren’t familiar with the native language yet, as well as helping these newer residents feel comfortable in their communities.
Multilingual library websites, like those at the San Francisco and Queens (N.Y.) public libraries, are just one of the ways in which libraries help non-English speakers see themselves represented in their communities. Public libraries often collect books in languages other than English, incorporate appropriate signage, and hire librarians and staff members who are multilingual. Additionally, some libraries offer bilingual book clubs. Services like these help all community members recognize the depth of diversity that exists in their communities.
…The San Diego Public Library offers a specific webpage highlighting area and library services for new Americans. The New York Public Library (NYPL) offers English As a Second Language (ESL) classes, provides citizenship information, and celebrates Immigrant Heritage Week. PLA offers an online learning module for librarians interested in providing new or improved services to new immigrants. Services like these make libraries essential for new immigrants, as they provide services and information about their new community and government while at the same time meeting the needs of these new patrons in an accessible and appropriate way.
Libraries are also a centralised hub of archived local history. They provide access to news alongside historical and cultural resources, often with a special focus on the local area such as access to past editions of local newspapers and periodicals, oral histories, digital history projects, and timelines of minority groups in the area. This preservation of historical documents and archiving is a major responsibility, allowing younger generations to look back on the media, news and stories of the past.
Ways to support your local library
It’s pretty clear that libraries are incredible assets to all who use them, and it’s vital to make sure those in our local communities are supported. To keep yours healthy:
Read The Big Issue’s step by step guide to saving local libraries, Penguin’s guide to supporting local libraries and Voices for the Library’s resource guide.
Follow The Library Campaign, a charity dedicated to supporting friends and users of libraries, and and to campaign for improved services in publicly funded libraries.
And most importantly, USE your library! Lend books and other items, attend events, go and work in the space. The more library services are used by the community, the harder it becomes to argue it should be closed or receive less funding. You get lots of books and other things to enjoy, vulnerable people still have access to safe spaces, and together we work to create the kind of future communities we currently dream of.
So go, enjoy reading, and start a revolution while you’re at it.