Books matter. Reading matters. And libraries are essential. In fact, Big Issue founder John Bird believes that cutting libraries will result in us needing to build more prisons and more homeless hostels.
John’s opinion is based on facts. Literacy is absolutely key when it comes to children’s life chances. The Reading Agency says: “reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.”
Did you know that low levels of literacy cost the UK an estimated £81 billion every year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending? Doors close when you can’t read or write confidently.
I’m blogging about this today because this week sees the launch of the Big Issue’s literacy campaign. It’s aim? To give the marginalised a chance and, crucially, to keep libraries open.
My local library is an oasis of calm and creativity which brings together people from all walks of life. Parents and tots gather there to hear their favourite stories read aloud, while teen and adult book clubs meet to discover new authors.
For children with chaotic home lives, libraries offer a quiet refuge where they can focus on homework, receive expert advice from library staff and use computers. Vulnerable adults also use the facilities to escape the cold and enjoy some much needed company.
I speak from experience. I live in Birmingham, where several major libraries face closure or reduced hours. My local branch in Sutton Coldfield has recently been granted just a few months’ reprieve to find a way of staying open. And this is a library which runs a hugely successful summer reading scheme, with hundreds of children signing up to read and review books throughout their holidays.
Until recently, I worked as a supply library assistant throughout Birmingham, so I know how well-used many of the branches are. During the day, library computers were fully booked up by people job hunting and filling in application forms. Sometimes I’d arrive for work in the middle of a poetry group performance group. At other times I’d have to tiptoe around the children’s section while a group of pre-school children listened to stories. It was always a pleasure to help our littlest library users choose and scan their books afterwards.
At half three, groups of older children would appear, asking for help with homework and photocopying or printing. Then there were the visitors who just came to sit in the warm and read the paper. They came every day.
The new library of Birmingham may be impressive but in my opinion, nothing can replace the accessibility and familiarity of our smaller high street libraries. The Big Issue’s campaigners believe that closing hundred of libraries and leaving local authorities so strapped for cash that they need to slash services, doesn’t meet the requirements of the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act. This states that authorities must provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” for all.
Even if we don’t use libraries often ourselves, surely we owe it to our children to fight for their survival? Author Neil Gaiman said:
“The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means at ts simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books and letting them read them.”
Through the lending of books, libraries offer our kids unrivalled access to a vast world of literature, imagination and knowledge. In my view, they are a national treasure, as are the qualified librarians who manage them. Do we really want to lose them forever?
The Big Issue literacy campaign aims to agitate for a future for libraries. They also plan to work with partner organisations including the Reading Agency, to “get books into the hands of as many people as we can, for free.”
Please lend your voice to the campaign if you can. Together, we can keep the library doors open for our children.