Libraries have helped me bring up my children in a shared enjoyment of books, connected me with my community, and provided me with something wonderful to do on dreich days. One of the most important people in my life was a librarian; by validating and nurturing my love of reading as a child she made me who I am today.
Libraries, in short, are essential to the individual, to families, and to the communities they live in. They are central to the social fabric of a properly democratic nation. The invention of the alphabet and writing is commonly viewed as one of humankind’s greatest inventions. But in a sense the creation of the public library system goes one better. Whereas the early scribes and the Kings they served jealously guarded the technology of writing and the information it encoded, libraries flipped that on its head. Open to all, free to all, libraries today offer everyone equal access to the treasures they contain, and are therefore vital motors of social equity, providing equal access to information and to the possibility of self-improvement.
All of this is deeply embedded in Scottish history and in who we are. One of the first countries in the world to achieve mass literacy, Scotland was also where one of the first free public libraries was created, in 1680. Anyone who has been to Innerpeffray library can see our history in microcosm – the church, the graveyard, the school, the library, and off to one side, an old Roman road. The historian Arthur Herman called Innerpeffray the Magna Carta of the Scottish mind, and it was places like this, graced with a library, that fuelled the Scottish enlightenment and the democratic traditions we value so highly today. Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, acknowledged all this when he left much of his fortune to the construction of public libraries not only in Scotland, but across the world. Such was his personal investment in a vision of what libraries can do for communities that he laid the foundation stone of Glasgow’s Mitchell library in 1907 himself.
Today, however, the public library system is under threat. Cash strapped councils have to juggle unpalatable choices in what they fund. Their statutory obligation is to provide a library system which is ‘adequate’. But who knows what that means? It’s a question that can only really be answered by acknowledging the huge role libraries have played, over time, in the creation of Scottish culture and habits of mind, and by understanding that a library in a community does not float free, disembodied from other services, but that it is intimately connected to health, education, community resilience, and the kinds of values and equal opportunities that define the character of a nation.
Marc Lambert is CEO of Scottish Book Trust