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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.

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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.

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