In communities, we tend to associate the word ‘centre’ with a physical entity like a building or a designated space.
A ‘centre’ is usually a structure that contains rooms or offices where people gather, work or mingle. If it’s not a building, then it’s a designated area for people to occupy at their leisure. However, when you consider the word ‘centre’, not as a noun but as a verb, it can have a profound impact on your conception of what a community centre can be.
Or, more to the point, what it ought to be.
Rather than merely providing warmth, shelter or access to space or activities, a community centre can orientate, engage, educate and inspire people; potentiating a higher vibration of community consciousness and shared purpose that often leads to increased well-being, higher quality of life and, ultimately, better social-cohesion. Sadly, in an age of austerity, the criminally under-resourced community centre plays a diminishing role and the local library is increasingly being used as a multi-purpose drop-in centre in its place.
Now, a library/community centre hybrid is not a bad idea, necessarily. In fact, if that were the original conceit of this new backdoor amalgam then the concept would be truly revolutionary. But that’s not what’s happening here. Essentially, the community centre is being imposed on the library to streamline services when, in truth, the practice undermines the integrity of both the library and the community centre.
Many of us don’t use libraries any longer, but for those who do, it’s impossible to overstate how indispensable the service is in communities characterised by poor education and low opportunity. The library is an engine room of social mobility. However, it performs a much simpler function too and one which any librarian worth their salt will guard jealously: its meant to be a place of peace, solitude and quiet contemplation.
And there is a very practical reason for this.
To give you a sense of how difficult it is to concentrate when there are things going on around you, simply pick up your smart phone, and start thumbing through a selection of ring tones, while continuing to read this article – I’ll wait.
Now imagine you are already stressed, because you have no money and debt-collectors, council tax and the DWP are breathing down your neck. Now throw in the fact you are not the best reader. Maybe you are a single mum, with a learning difficulty like dyslexia. Maybe you’re looking to get back into education and have a limited amount of time for activities that require concentration? Maybe you are a young man, recently released from prison, perhaps on a tag who has been given an apprenticeship in a barbers or local deli but have no experience? Throw a little ADHD in the mix too and an underlying addiction issue which is exacerbated by stress and suddenly the simple act of entering a library becomes a life-changing act. Or, perhaps, you are a middle-aged woman who has just lost her job to a robot and are currently at war with the DWP who have imposed a sanction on you for being late to a meeting – because they closed the Job Centre in your community.
When you don’t live this kind of precarious life every day then it’s easy to forget that many other people do – and its bloody hellish. For many of the people who depend on libraries, there are already enough barriers in place, economically, culturally and socially, to dissuade them from even attempting something as potentially challenging as filling out an application form, disputing something with the Job Centre or learning to read.
Then we have the senior citizen, largely forgotten in the beard-stroking dither of progressive politics. Perhaps a widow, who lives alone, or a disabled man who uses a wheelchair and can only access a certain number of buildings in the area.
Shockingly, the library is one of the only places they can sit down for more than five minutes without being expected to spend money. And let’s not forget there’s a reason people in these areas need to get out their homes every now and then; paper-thin walls, where you can hear people flushing toilets, boiling kettles and pushing the buttons on their remote controls above, below and on both sides – at every hour of the day. This is not to mention the less-than-serene sounds of a community living under constant stress, and all the challenging, often frightening, behaviour this fuels; couples engaged in aggressive disputes, drunken young people shouting in the streets, and strangers coming and going in your close.
The library is one of many dwindling resources that act as safety valves in stressful communities, where vulnerable people can mentally re-group. But increasingly, they will arrive at the library to find young people running around, or people taking part in discussions or courses, or Mother/Toddler groups, or something or other which, quite frankly, should be going on in the community centre.
Councils are under increasing pressure to maintain a high level of service with sufficiently less resources at their disposal and again, while parties bicker about whose fault it is, the axe falls on those with the least capacity for resilience. We should be angry that something as simple as a quiet place to be with your thoughts has become an unreasonable expectation in our most challenged communities. And with a rise in xenophobia and racism, and the regressive rhetoric that stokes unjustified prejudice, you don’t need to be a bookworm to realise where many, who spend every day of their lives in these conditions, have wrongly decided to turn their anger.
This, unfortunately, is what happens in communities with no centre.