Libraries changed my life: save them for the next generation

Germaine Arnold

I spent my formative years in a fourth floor council flat in New Addington, near Croydon. This is not the prelude to some harrowing tale of child poverty; in fact, I had a rather pleasant upbringing, aided by the part played by New Addington Library.

The library was in a grotty little building, surrounded by bookies, takeaways and social housing. At the time Croydon Council used a revolting shade of brown for their library’s signage, adding to its illusion of misery. But inside the wretched exterior, I discovered things which have undoubtedly changed my life.

With no money for books or videos at home, I depended on the supply from New Addington Library, and I was not alone. Out of school, I would find almost every kid in my class either in the library or hanging around it. In particular I adored the annual Book Trail, which encouraged children to read a number of books over a few weeks in the summer holidays, with the carrot of a flimsy certificate at the end of it. I still have the certificates from 1992-1995 safely stowed away in a box under my bed.

Now as an adult I live a little further north, in Lewisham, where the council are set to launch an assault on its community libraries by axing six of them- half of the borough’s libraries. And they had the gall this week to gush over the importance of World Book Day without a hint of irony.

Mary Dejevsky said in The Independent this week: “If it’s going to be a choice between the public swimming pool and the library, there is no contest. I can surf the Web, I can buy a book (or pick one up for 50p at a charity shop), but I can’t build and maintain my own pool.”

The skills gained through reading are significantly more important than those gained from swimming. The library is particularly important for those of us who cannot afford to buy new books or surf the web at home.

On a social level too, communities will lose vital meeting spaces, both literal and virtual networking areas. We should never take it for granted that anyone can afford home internet access, and with social networking forming a particularly important part of children’s lives, anything which reduces access to the internet for less well-off children will harm inclusivity.

The renowned playwright Alan Bennett said this week that library closures were tantamount to “child abuse.” This may sound extreme but the tools of knowledge that many of us take for granted are not within the grasp of everyone. To move them further from reach would be a great shame.

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