Not for you: a brief rant about libraries and public services

I ordered a book from the library recently. In itself it shouldn’t sound that surprising but I had to be reminded about the service itself by members of my reading group. I’m used to having the library as a place to browse but a part of me didn’t like to order books in, it felt like too much of an ask.

These days I’m used to hearing about a book and buying it, either after finding it in a bookshop or by being convinced enough without looking at it. I’m not the only one. Our local library is threatened with closure and the TV press coverage did some vox pops in the Market Square to ask people what they thought. Practically everyone they screened told them, “Oh I don’t use the library, there’s no need, with Amazon and the internet.”

These were mostly older people, the ones we’re told don’t like modern times. If the range of books at my library is anything to go by, they’re also the ones targeted as users – there’s a lot of sagas and crime, the staple of old women – and yet, if you also look at the people in the library, there’s a whole range of ages using it but without the matching investment in library content for us.

It was no problem at all for the library to get hold of the books I wanted, so easy it felt ridiculous that I’d not thought of it before. And this is the bit that got me thinking. I had felt that I shouldn’t ask for this service. This is interesting as it speaks to a shift in attitudes. Over the last 12 years of a Tory-led austerity government, but also over the wider period of much of my lifetime, we’ve been subject to this sustained assault on public services. Of constant calls for saving money and especially of public services only being there to help the poorest in society. It’s in everything, social care services are there for poor older people, frail ones who can’t manage alone, social services to look after families who can’t look after themselves, hospitals for the sick. Even in the calls to save these libraries, a huge emphasis was placed on libraries being a service for the poor, people who can’t afford a computer at home, places that are warm where you don’t have to spend money, places to get advice when you’re needy.

Somewhere in there, we seem to have absorbed the message that these services are not for us, are only there to catch the poorest. You want something, you go and buy it, you deal with your need is very much the attitude that modern times has instilled in us. Look after yourself. Don’t be a burden on public services. It’s funny how much we seem to have internalised this. Yet, if asked I would have vociferously said public services are for everyone until the other day when I was asked why I didn’t just order a book I wanted to read.

If the pandemic has done nothing else, it has reinforced to people that they like a sense of community, that a local area of people who are recognisable to you – be they librarians, street sweepers, volunteers, health centre receptionists or whoever – have value to us. The interactions I had with my barista each day were precious. And it is in everyone’s best interests that public services work for all of us, so we can get our deliveries from a healthy educated person using safe roads, so that we aren’t taking time off work to look after a relative, so that we aren’t panicking about how to keep our house or feed our children if we fall ill.

It’s like that irritating analogy of people being a failure if they use the bus after a certain age. Yet, here we are, decades after that pronouncement, looking at a dying planet and wondering why people are still so wedded to their cars. What could be better than a resource that can be shared around more than one person? Isn’t that a better way to look at our world? Isn’t that better value for money, for all of us?

Anyway, the moral of the story is: order books from your library. They’ve just got hold of another one for me, really easily and without fuss. What a service.

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