This is cross-posted at The Season.
My father was laid off when I was 11. My mom had recently quit her job to train as a teacher.
Being a worrisome child, my first fear was that we’d lose our home. Mom reassured me that wouldn’t happen. My second fear was that I wouldn’t be able to buy books anymore. Mom said, “Honey, I’ll always buy you whatever books you want.”
I’m not sure whether she underestimated my voracious appetite for stories, or how long Dad would be unemployed, but we soon started frequenting the library instead of the bookstore.
The library in our town was tiny. It didn’t have much of a young adult section, and I was always worried I’d get yelled at if I spoke out loud. It wasn’t my favorite place to be, but it was my main connection to stories that helped me escape the toughest years of my life for a few hours at a time.
Over the last year, there’s been a lot of talk in the UK—as I know there has been in the U.S. and other countries—about saving public money by closing libraries. The arguments in favor of this seem beyond daft to me. How can you quantify all that we’d lose if we lost libraries?
On Sunday, London’s Observer Magazine printed this fantastic article about all the ways libraries and librarians serve their communities. It says, “The great untold truth of libraries is that people need them not because they’re about study and solitude, but because they’re about connection.”
I see this several times a week at London’s Barbican Library, where I often spend my lunch hour writing. Part of an arts center that’s home to the London Symphony Orchestra and also has a cinema and theater, the Barbican Library is far more than the sleepy seaside library of my childhood.
In fact, watching people connect at the Barbican Library is sometimes much more interesting than the scene I’m writing. There’s often a large group of women knitting at the library. They look like they cover every age between 25 and 85. This isn’t a silent library, so they chat as they knit, and their creations are spread on the table between them.
I once saw an elderly man approach them, smiling. He said he loved seeing them there every week; it made him happy. They invited him to sit and talk for a while. Perhaps this won’t seem strange to many of you, but in London I find it’s very unusual for strangers to strike up a conversation with each other. It’s far safer to pretend you’re alone in this city, which can only make it a very lonely place, especially for people who don’t have jobs or families.
The article recognizes how vital stories—especially happy stories and romances—are for people whose lives are difficult. One of the librarians talks about taking a mobile library to deprived areas of London, and chatting with people about what kind of romance novels they liked. He said, “Those books are almost a form of medication; I reckon we save the NHS [National Health Service] a fortune in antidepressants.”
Last week I was in Sarajevo. I walked past the old Sarajevo library, which was shelled during the Balkans conflict. Over a million books were burnt to ash, but much more than that was lost when the library was destroyed.
Nearly 20 years later, the building is covered in scaffolding. I don’t know what library services Sarajevans have access to now, but I discovered this New York Times article from 1996, less than a year after the end of the siege. It contains a quote from Enes Kujundzic, the library’s director, which seems applicable to countries emerging from all kinds of catastrophes—whether war or economic depression.
Responding to people who thought the country had bigger priorities for reconstruction, he said, “People forget that this country can’t be rebuilt without resources of science and technology. People say you are a cultural institution. I say we’re also an educational and scientific institution that has to help this country compete.”
And how many of us live in countries that no longer want to compete?
What do libraries mean to you? What connections have they helped you make—whether they connected you with people, new authors, or ideas? With so much information moving online, do you think libraries are a waste of public money, or are they still as vital for communities as they’ve ever been?