Opinion

Damian Barr: Newarthill Library saved me. Now we must save it

"Libraries are a frontline service, not a luxury. They are the engines of social mobility. Even the Victorians got this"

Damian Barr outside Newarthill Library

Damian Barr outside Newarthill Library

Growing up, I had a library tan – skin as pale as pages, freckles foxing a face I was careful to keep cast down. Your eyes are more likely to get blacked if the bullies see their faces reflected back. Long before I knew I liked boys, I preferred books to football. The one time I joined in I scored straight away only to learn, as my team ran at me, it was an own goal. “Never mind, Professor,” my mum said.

Within a week of moving up a class at Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School I’d hungry caterpillar my way through the book corner. Luckily we got weekly visits from the big yellow mobile library, its suspension springing as I jumped on. Even parked by the school gates this bus could take me anywhere – Narnia, Nimh, the very gates of Mordor. I dreamed of stowing away.

I could fly with flights of dragons, I could unmask the witches, I could do whatever I wanted. In books I could be brave. In books I could be safe. The gas bill came before books at home but that was alright because when I got too big for the mobile (and anyway I’d nearly read it dry) I joined Newarthill Library.

I could fly with flights of dragons, I could unmask the witches, I could do whatever I wanted

Growing up bookish and bullied in the shadow of a vast steel plant long since rusted, on top of coal mines long since ashes, in a village where you were Catholic or Protestant and Glasgow was a distant dream, Newarthill Library was my sanctuary. I am only a writer now because I was a reader then and very specifically there.

I couldn’t afford the 20p bus fare to nearby Motherwell, and the school library closed at 4.30pm and didn’t open at weekends or holidays, which is when boys with nothing to do are at their most brutal and my mum’s boyfriend most wanted me out of the house. Newarthill Library (pictured above and below) sheltered me, inspired me and saved me. Now we must save it.

It’s nothing special to look at, a grey single-storey block squatting across from the wee shop. Now it has some computers and a bright alphabet rug blooms on the floor where the BookBug group sits for story time. It still smells the same: stolen afternoons and stories and Pledge.

Newarthill Library
Newarthill Library

It is earmarked for closure along with six others by Culture North Lanarkshire, led by Heather McVey, acting on behalf of Labour-run North Lanarkshire Council. Savings of £1.5m are touted by the unlistening council and its hapless quango who are pushing on despite a public consultation that has energised and united a community used to doing what they’re told.

None of it adds up.

Newarthill Library costs just £50,342 a year to keep staffed and stocked – doubtless a fraction of the management fees CultureNL refuse to disclose. It costs almost nothing but means everything to the people using it. On a recent visit there I saw: parents reading to wriggling toddlers, a teenager mumbling about university prospectuses, a man out of work for 10 years applying for jobs online and a contented knot of old people. I saw my teenage self, dreaming.

It is earmarked for closure along with six others by Culture North Lanarkshire

Most benefit claimants can’t afford home internet so they need to come here to apply for jobs online. If they’re not actively seeking work their benefits are cut. No internet, no benefits, no food on the table. “I can let my son have any book he wants,” one single mum told me. “I get to be a good mum in here.” Footfall, recorded automatically, registered 18,138 visitors last year. Only 6,849 people live here. But CultureNL claim Newarthill Library is ‘underused’.

Two powerhouse mums – Angie Walker and Cat Dormer – are leading the fight locally. Some 2,225 villagers signed their petition – a third of the village. CultureNL counted this as ONE response. I started a petition online gathering more than 2,500 signatures, including Ian Rankin, Armistead Maupin, David Nicholls, Val McDermid, Matt Haig and Caitlin Moran. Again CultureNL counted this as a single response. But they’re listening, they say, honest.

They launched a consultation which – surprise, surprise – changed nothing. They agreed with themselves entirely. CultureNL chair Heather McVey found her own process “extremely useful”, saying: “Despite the wide range of submissions received, no alternative income/funding models were submitted.” No such alternatives were sought – they asked no such question. Meanwhile, locals are bursting with ideas to raise money and lower costs: a café, volunteer support and writing classes. The flawed consultation forms the basis of the judicial review we’re seeking, with support from McLibel lawyer Mark Stephens and Baroness Helena Kennedy.

Libraries are a frontline service, not a luxury. They are the engines of social mobility. Even the Victorians got this. Swindon plans to close 11 of its 15. More than 20 will soon close in Lancashire. The UK has lost 343 libraries in the past six years. We cannot afford to lose another. Especially not this one.

Labour has one MP left in Scotland. Margaret Curran was one of 40 MPs ousted by the SNP in 2015. She tweeted me to say: “The SNP govt has cut local govt badly but what a loss the library would be.” What a loss indeed. To the community, yes, but also to Scottish Labour. Keir Hardie (above), their very first MP, was born in Newarthill. We learned all about him at Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School – how he educated himself out of the coal mines to sit in parliament. Now his party is planning to close the only library in his village. It seems almost suicidal.

Saving Newarthill Library would be an easy win for the admirable leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, and could help save them in their heartland. A revival, not a U-turn. A new chapter, not an epitaph, for them and the library that helped me write a new story for myself.

Save Newarthill Library

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