Read between the lines
by Eugene Grant
“A library”, said Henry Ward Beecher, “is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life”. However, these necessities may soon be considered not necessary enough. A Government decision to review the law that obliges local councils to provide library services could result in the closure of hundreds of libraries in order to make savings. Even the sanctity of the written word is not safe from the spending squeeze, it seems.
Public institutions such as galleries, museums and libraries are fundamental features of a progressive society, one in which knowledge, information, stories and ideas are openly shared between citizens. And yet, the state of reading in this country is in something of a crisis. Children in England have some of the poorest attitudes overall towards reading among developed countries. Poor reading (and writing) levels among children of primary school age are strongly connected with low achievement in later life. Some five million adults in the UK are thought to lack functional literacy; as many as one in six adults lack the literacy skills of an average eleven year old. People who cannot read are less likely to find work and more likely to go to prison than those can. As Richard Reeves and Phil Collins wrote in The Liberal Republic, there is no deprivation of capability as serious or debilitating as being unable to read.
In the midst of a recession, libraries offer free and open access to books – books many people could not afford to buy otherwise. Nowhere else are people so immediately exposed to such a vast wealth of artistry and imagination than inside a library. But local libraries are also places for congregation, for young and old alike; where programmes like Bookstart and teenage and young adult reading groups aim to encourage kids to develop essential literacy skills and a longstanding love of one of life’s most rewarding activities: reading.
Libraries are indeed necessities of life, not luxuries to be disposed of in austere times. Let’s hope the Government can read between the lines on this one.