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Public Libraries – our new report shows urgent need to boost funding

Lord John Bird, MPs and experts gather in Parliament to launch a new report outlining the overwhelming case for long-term sustainable funding for libraries across the UK

“Public libraries are palaces of the people” Lord John Bird.

Libraries give us power. They are places of inspiration and imagination. Community spaces that provide a world of affordable adventure and access to information about absolutely everything.

We instinctively know all the great things libraries provide – to individuals, communities and wider society.

Let us count some of the ways libraries enrich our lives: Libraries are places of learning. They offer a quiet, safe space of study when home is too crowded or chaotic. Libraries are an intellectual hub at the heart of thriving communities and provide respite from social isolation. Libraries also offer internet access for those who are not online at home, they help entrepreneurs and students and connect people from marginalised communities. This much we know.

But when Lord John Bird and Gill Furniss MP (former librarian and now head of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries) met with the government to ask for more support for libraries in the UK, they were met with a demand: show us the data.

The best way of smashing poverty is through libraries

If this was intended – as was suspected – to be a ploy to kick library funding into the long grass alongside so many other key issues starved of oxygen by Brexit, it failed. Bird, Furniss et al were undaunted.

Instead, alongside CILIP – the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals – they set about producing a report that assesses the ways in which libraries not only improve lives and cement communities but also how investment in libraries represents great value for money.

The resulting report, Public Libraries: The Case For Support, provides all the evidence local and central government could require to back renewed long-term investment in the sector.

Committee Room Four at the Houses of Parliament was packed as The Big Issue’s founder Lord John Bird chaired the launch of the report.

“The best way of smashing poverty is through libraries,” Bird said, in his opening address.

Bird public libraries report Orlando Gili
John Bird addresses the launch of the Public Libraries report

“One of the planks of my work here in parliament is to encourage support of libraries because they are the intellectual space at the epicentre of every healthy community.

“This a really sexy report,” he continued. “It does what the government asked us to do when we had a meeting with the Minister for Libraries. They said, ‘What is the evidence that if you have a really good library there is a knock on social effect?’

“This evidence based report supports the case that every visit to a library is an opportunity to start the process of changing lives.

“When we set up The Big Issue, most of the people we met who were coming out of prison or the armed forces, living on the streets, or were stuck because of the poor social security system wanted to find a way of using education as a means of furthering their lives. Libraries were central to that, so we have supported libraries for the last 28 years.”

The reports findings include:

  • Libraries support more than 194million visits each year, plus a further 94 million online
  • Libraries provide 26million hours of supported internet each year
  • Around half of the UK population holds a library card.
  • Librarians are among the Top Five most trusted professions.
  • 75% of the population say libraries are important for their community

Gill Furniss MP told attendees how she “started going to libraries as a child and never stopped.” She explained how  her desire to read “all the books in the library” meant she was a competent reader even before she started school.

Furniss later worked in her local library, took a degree in librarianship aged 39, and is now Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries.

“To me, libraries are like an Aladdin’s Cave full of knowledge. And you never stop learning. A day without learning is a very dull day.”

Libraries make a difference across the NHS, schools, colleges, everywhere

Furniss said the new report shows the biggest growth in library usage being among people aged 15-24 and spoke of their value as community spaces. Libraries, she said, break down isolation, encourage entrepreneurship, and touch so many parts of the community.

“My job is to fight for the funding the people out there deserve for our public libraries.”

Before the report’s launch, Nick Poole from CILIP told The Big Issue: “The purpose today is to send a message to policymakers, showing how public libraries make a difference across the NHS, schools, colleges, everywhere.”

Libraries create the infrastructure that allows everybody to get on in life

Poole added that the new report fits with the ethos behind Lord Bird’s other new project – the Future Generations Bill launched with Caroline Lucas Mp this week.

“Libraries create the infrastructure that allows everybody to get on in life. The real issue we have seen from austerity is a two tier service – so you have library haves and have nots. We need to make sure this is for the future, for everyone.

“The other thing we are doing is working with our Library Champion, Bobby Seagull, who is an amazing advocate for libraries.”

Seagull follows in the footsteps of Stephen Fry and Professor Mary Beard as a Library Champion. He launched a 10-point Manifesto for Libraries in the hope of persuading political parties to get behind the campaign.

“When people meet me, they often say, ‘Oh you are the guy from University Challenge,‘” Seagull, who works as a maths teacher and is taking a PhD at Cambridge but first found fame on the quiz show, told The Big Issue.

“But the reason I developed the knowledge for that show is that I used to spend every Saturday afternoon in East Ham library with my dad and younger siblings. And as an adult now, I go to the gym every Saturday and then straight to the library for a couple of hours reading, talking to the librarians, meeting people in the community.

“I realise how important libraries have been for me and I want other people to have that. As a teacher, I know reading is the thing that opens up the world for young people. It is a great equalizer.

“There are lots of political things going on right now. But we can’t neglect libraries – if the UK is to become a thriving nation, we need knowledge, information, digital information.”

Seagull’s manifesto calls for the establishment of a National Library Improvement Fund with a budget of £50million per year over the next five year Parliament.

The government’s creation this week of a £250million Cultural Improvement hub, of which half is earmarked for investment in libraries and museums over the next four years, while a welcome boost, falls far short of what is required, according to Gill Furniss.

To put it in perspective, libraries have already lost more than £213million in funding since 2010.

Library supporters can sign up to back Seagull’s campaign and become library champions at a new advocacy platform for public libraries.

Librarians are taught to serve and to educate – they are not taught to fight

Steve Potash from Rakuten Overdrive, who advocate for libraries and readers worldwide, captured the mood of the Committee Room when he said: “Libraries don’t have enough champions. Librarians are taught to serve and to educate – they are not taught to fight. This report is a call for action.

“Federal financial support for libraries is absolutely essential because it shows where your values are. It comes back to having that one trusted institution in the community…”

Download and read the Public Libraries: The Case For Support report here

Images: Orlando Gili