I was safe among the stacks, and I didn’t often feel safe growing up. Lanarkshire in the 1980s and 1990s was not a great place to be speccy and gay with a Catholic mum and Protestant dad. My library card was a passport to countless other worlds and an escape from this one. With my head in a book, I could forget Ravenscraig shutting, my dad losing his job, my parents divorcing, the meagre sum my mum got at the post office shrinking while our gas and electricity meters only got hungrier. The bullies who haunted me never dared cross the library threshold. It was magic. The radiators were always roasting, the lights never went out, nobody ever tried to hurt me.
Our libraries are a sanctuary open to all for the benefit of all and we forget this at our peril. Especially now. We don’t like to think about all the ugly reasons why people might need a safe space - reasons that have only become more acute during Covid: more families falling into poverty, more children lagging behind, more of us struggling with mental and physical health. Since 2010, the UK government has chosen to close 800 libraries. Yes, chosen. Cuts don’t just happen. If we allow our libraries to be the latest casualty in the ongoing culture wars, we will all suffer. More than a quarter of Scotland's libraries remain shut even after restrictions lifted. The very real fear is Covid will be a cover for more closures. This is not austerity, it’s stupidity. Even a writer can do the sums.
Reading is a joy, but libraries are not a luxury. They more than pay for themselves: £6.95 is generated for every public £1 spent, according to a 2019 Economic Impact Analysis by the British Library Business and the Intellectual Property Centre National Network. We know reading is good for us, reducing stress and inspiring empathy. NHS Scotland estimate libraries saves them £3.2 million annually. Central government is forcing local government to make impossible choices between social services and libraries. This is a false binary because libraries are a frontline service. They improve literacy, champion wellbeing, tackle social isolation and bridge the digital divide. You might be reading this online but 1 in 7 Scots still struggle with data poverty and depend on library computers to get online. Libraries are our most used public service - they are as essential to the health and wealth of our communities as surgeries and schools. And the 1964 Public Libraries Act requires government to run them properly not into the ground.
When Newarthill Library was threatened in 2016 I imagined wee me locked out. Where would he go? Closure was presented as a foregone conclusion by a cash-strapped council and most folk seemed resigned to losing yet another good thing. But not everybody. I spoke to locals who used the library computer to do their benefit applications - without these they’d be ‘sanctioned’, penalized with further penury. I met happy families at the Book Bug Club. I discussed Binchy, Dickens and the new Rebus with fervent borrowers. Communities elsewhere had resisted closure and they didn’t even have the thrawn grit of Newarthillians. Together, we fought and won. But it’s not a fight anybody should be having.
Our libraries can help power a sustainable recovery from Covid and the inequalities it has revealed and exacerbated. Our libraries can save us. I know they can. We just have to save them first.
Damian Barr is a writer, broadcaster and host, whose works include Maggie & Me.