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    A country without libraries: what we are missing

    Harry Twohig makes an impassioned case for the vital importance of libraries in our communities.

    You might think that working in a library would be a nice, peaceful job. That’s what I thought too. After spending two years working in public libraries, I’ve realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

    Let me start by setting the record straight. Libraries aren’t just about books. They’re about the communities they serve. Of course, one way that they serve those communities is by providing unrestricted access to the joy of reading. But they also offer a technological lifeline to those living in digital poverty. They provide public health services to those who are alone. They deliver free, educational activities for families to enjoy. Above all else, they open minds and provide people of all ages with a chance to dream. We need our libraries – now, more than ever. Let me explain why.

    In 2018, one in ten households in the UK were without WiFi, and 12% of all households didn’t own a computer. Thirty years ago, not having WiFi or a computer wouldn’t have been an issue. Fast forward to the present day, and digital poverty is a real problem. Many job application processes are now entirely digitalised. The process of applying for universal credit is carried out most easily online, and you need an email account even if you’re applying over the phone. Without libraries, some of the most vulnerable people in our society would be left behind, unable to engage in the technological revolution that has swept the world. Public library services up and down the country offer a lifeline to those without computers in their homes, not only by providing access to one, but moreover by promoting digital literacy within their communities. Need help setting up an email account, using a scanner or completing those online applications? Not a problem, the library staff are on hand to help. For many, going to a library isn’t a choice: it’s a necessity. 

    Libraries don’t just provide resources. Perhaps more importantly, they provide an opportunity for human connection. You see, as well as offering a technological lifeline, libraries are also on the frontline in the battle against loneliness in our communities. At the minute, we all know something of what it feels like to be isolated and alone. Most of us are lucky. We know that this isolation is only temporary, and we have friends and family who are just a phone call away. 

    Yet, the reality for many is different, and isolation isn’t temporary for all of us. 

    Imagine having absolutely no one. Imagine living away from family and friends, or even having no family or friends at all. The emotional toll of loneliness is clear, but there’s an underacknowledged physical health impact too. Social isolation has been proven to increase the likelihood of mortality by 26% by the Campaign to End Loneliness. When you couple that with the fact that those experiencing chronic loneliness are 50% more likely to call the emergency services, reducing loneliness becomes not just a moral obligation, but a necessity. So, how do libraries combat loneliness in our communities? By bringing people together. From board game nights to knitting groups, from bereavement support sessions to reading groups for people with dementia, libraries facilitate connection. They give those who would otherwise be victims of isolation somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to talk to. By doing so, they’re not only changing people’s lives – they’re reducing the burden on our NHS and social care teams too. You really can’t put a price on that.

    The perception of libraries is often that they’re places geared to serve the elderly. But libraries also provide parents with a safe space in which they can encourage their children to dream. Over the last two years, I’ve been involved in family craft sessions, and a coding project which introduced young people to the opportunities that exist in the world of technology. I’ve seen libraries transformed into hubs of witchcraft and wizardry when hosting Harry Potter book nights, and young people invited into a lair of dungeons, dragons and discovery for our annual Halloween fright night. Why does this matter? Libraries are spaces where memories are made, where dreams are cultivated, and imaginations unlocked. They open up doors in the minds of young people, and show them that anything is possible. 

    If you can’t already tell, I love libraries. What I love about them most is the fact that all of the opportunities I’ve listed, and the many more that I haven’t, are open to everyone. As a public service, libraries are driven by a duty to serve, not a financial need. They provide truly magical opportunities to people who otherwise may not be able to afford them, helping to tackle social inequality along the way. 

    If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be these next few words: libraries are about so much more than books. A world without libraries is a world where people are left behind, and those in the greatest need are forgotten. The doors to our libraries may be closed at the moment, but they must not stay closed forever. 

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