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Libraries can save us – on book days and every day

In a post-Covid world, the case for well-funded libraries has never been stronger, writes Sean McNamara
Leaders must address falls in the number of youngsters reading for pleasure since the start of the pandemic. Image credit: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On March 4 the planet celebrated another World Book Day, with thousands of children taking part, dressing up as their favourite characters and celebrating all the fun and joy that reading brings to young people. This is followed by another global day on April 2, International Children’s Book Day – celebrated to inspire a love of reading and children’s books.

In addition to this there are initiatives such as the Summer Reading Challenge encouraging a generation of young people to discover the incredible benefits of reading, often aided by access to school and public libraries. The benefits are plentiful. For example, reading for pleasure is proven to be more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education. It is also a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background, and a wealth of evidence links having books in the home with reading enjoyment, confidence and better exam scores.

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However, as with so much during lockdown, the very process of accessing books has been subject to a range of caveats that are grounded in inequality. While many parents will have been able to buy books, others will simply not have the financial flexibility and disposable income to do this. Research carried out by the World Book Day charity found that the number of children reading has fallen since the start of the pandemic and that a quarter of primary schools raised concern that access to books had become a barrier to reading for pleasure and overall literacy levels. Recent reports highlight that up to 30 per cent of children still live in poverty in the UK, nine per every class of 30.

This inequality is not new of course, but there is a simple, effective and proven solution to the specific inequality of access to reading materials. This is of course a well-funded, resourced and professionally staffed network of public and school libraries. It is a solution that should be a no-brainer for any society that genuinely cares about ‘levelling up’ – good quality library services located within communities offering access to books, digital and more. However, this is something that has been far from simple across the UK, with more than a fifth of library branches closing since 2009 and paid staffing reduced by almost 40 per cent.

Libraries have a key role to play in supporting children’s literacy development and enjoyment of reading. The Reading Agency found that nearly a quarter of four to 11-year-olds who were surveyed said that visiting the library was the action most likely to make them read, and the Scottish Book Trust has shown that fostering a love of reading early on helps babies and young children to develop good early communication and language skills. This is something that initiatives such as Bookbug and Bounce and Rhyme sessions are vital in supporting.

The pandemic and lack of access to library services across the UK has exacerbated this situation, even though some have offered very innovative solutions such as click and collect and improved eBook facilities. This lack of access is unavoidable just now, but it is essential that as we come out of the pandemic libraries across the country are opened, with staff offered the protection they need to feel safe. Absolutely no library should remain closed based on digital being a suitable and adequate alternative.

However, after years of austerity, even once open, our public library services will need additional support to ensure they meet the needs of their communities and to help everyone, including young people, access reading materials. School libraries have often been woefully under-resourced over the past 12 years, with many schools sharing librarians or not having access to one at all. This is simply not good enough if we want our young people to access books, whether in lockdown or not.

International book days are wonderful things that need to be supplemented by well-funded public services

In Scotland, the government provides additional funding to school and public libraries and has enabled national strategies for both (including a new public libraries strategy later this year). However, the financial challenges that local government faces mean library services are often seen as an easy target, and this can go on no longer.

At CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) we continue to do all we can to advocate the value of library services across the UK. For example, in Scotland we are currently campaigning in the lead up to the elections in May. Our #LibrariesAreEssential campaign asks that library cuts are no longer seen as a short-term financial fix and libraries are further recognised as a solution to long-term challenges such as improving health and wellbeing, reducing social isolation, reducing the digital divide and providing access to books and reading for young people.

International book days and challenges are wonderful things that need to be supplemented by well-funded public services. The value politicians place on library services is a clear sign of how they value their communities, young people, and the equity of access our society needs. The case for libraries has never been stronger, and we will continue to do all we can to provide the evidence that proves this to those in power.

Sean McNamara is head of the CILIP in Scotland