Opinion

Robin Ince: the library is a centre of empathy we cannot afford to lose

In Sheffield, the evidence is clear that the library enriches the community, far beyond the books on the shelves

Sheffield Central Library

Sheffield Central Library. Image: Wikipedia

I was talking loudly in the library. Even worse, I was swearing in the library. Just once, but still… And even worse than all of that, I was cheered on by the librarians of Sheffield.

I decided I hadn’t visited enough libraries in the last few years. I love that they exist and what they can help people achieve. But libraries, as ever, are under threat. This symbol of civilisation is deemed a luxury good. While some people are allowed to embezzle our money for access to yachts, and banks can be bailed out and then, once secure, can tell us to piss off so they can make their profits without interference, the rest of us may have to battle to get free access to the latest Bernardine Evaristo. 

The last time I wrote in support of libraries I was told libraries were middle class. Someone middle class told me, though they didn’t use the library. They insisted everyone had laptops nowadays and could do all their reading like that and so borrowing books was the equivalent of ploughing a field with a mammoth’s tusk (I am embellishing a little).

This has rarely been my experience of libraries. People in libraries include pensioners catching up on newspapers and periodicals, refugee groups who couldn’t afford to sit in cafes, people applying for jobs on the library computers and children on reading challenges, entranced by an energetic librarian performing Lemony Snicket. On top of this, some people are now gathering in libraries as they are too worried about fuel costs to turn on their own heating.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription 

Sheffield’s Central Library was busy when I entered. The librarian was helping a man with a book that he had the gist of, but not quite enough for either of them to work out the title. An owl was involved, or an eagle, or both. The stairwell of the library is decorated with quotations encouraging getting lost in a book. Albert Einstein faces me, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” 

I am talking in a room lined with leather-bound journals covering the events of Sheffield across the ages. The event is to help finance Dr Mary Grover’s Steel City Readers, the stories of reading for pleasure in Sheffield between 1925 and 1955. 

In a recent article in The Guardian, there was an insinuation that adoring books, even hoarding books, was, yet again, a middle-class pursuit. It drew much fury, with many working-class readers explaining that they now surround themselves with books because they were sparse when they were young. Many of those who spoke talked of how vital the library was to their childhood. The discussion reminded me of a book titled Do Miners Read Dickens?, the story of the South Wales miners’ libraries which so shocked wealthy gents – did these grimy men really wish to spend their free time with George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Brontë’s Wuthering Heights? The answer came back “yes”.   

As usual, I banged on about books being a weapon of empathy and ended up talking about Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a sweet-natured children’s book to introduce children to the idea of same-sex couples which was the centrepiece of the propaganda storm used to push Section 28’s homophobic legislation through. We are seeing some people in the UK calling for a new Section 28 to forbid books on “gender” in schools. I mention Welcome to St Hell, a great comic book by Lewis Hancox that tells his story of growing up as a trans man in St Helens.

A few days later, I receive an email from a trans man who was in the audience. He said he feared it might be a “dicey moment” for him when I started talking about the book, but then felt it was positive and affirming for him. This is something else libraries are for, they are for people feeling less isolated, they are for people to broaden their horizons rather than narrow them. If we can afford embezzlement by millionaires and not afford a warm and educational space, then we are not much of a country at all. 

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster. His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. 

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support our vendors this winter and beyond

If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us
food bank
Helen Barnard

Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits
Chris Warburton

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits

The roots of NHS decay can't be hidden by soundbite veneers
Paul McNamee

The roots of NHS decay can't be hidden by soundbite veneers

Why Larry David is the menopausal woman's spirit animal. No, seriously
Lucy Sweet

Why Larry David is the menopausal woman's spirit animal. No, seriously

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know