I still remember the first time I borrowed from my local public library.
It was a summer during primary school, the kind of summer which never seems to end; when the (vaguely) sunny days melt one into another but September never feels any closer. A trip into our nearest town revealed a side-street I’d never been up before, and on that side street: a library. We got to pick our library card colours (mine was blue) and were equipped with a fabric tote bag for carrying the many books we’d be reading from one place to another. It was the beginning of what I imagine will be a lifelong love affair.
Ever since, in foreign cities, I have been drawn to visiting beautiful libraries and bookshops: Shakespeare & Co in Paris, the Strahov library in Prague, or the Trinity College Old Library in Dublin. If you think that seeing a place of learning and knowledge as a tourist attraction seems strange, a glance at El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires might change your mind.
Of course, not every moment spent in a library has been as romantic.
Some ten years later, I would find myself sitting in a library for hours on end almost every single day, having found that attempting to study in my room with both a reading list longer than my arm and access to Netflix wasn’t a recipe for success. Working in the library has two major concentration advantages: first the book-thick silence, broken only by the sound of other people typing rapidly around you, feeding the contagious work ethic; and second, the inevitable shame of being caught on Facebook when someone walks behind you and sees your laptop screen. I need both.
However, libraries are not just places of interest or concentration boosters. They are bastions of freedom and equality.
Libraries are one of the only public spaces we can spend time in nowadays without being expected to spend any money at all. There is no monthly membership fee (besides taxes); they do not charge for entry or according to how long you spend there; the only costs are negligible reservation fees and the odd late fine. They are also one of the only places which will welcome anyone – regardless of how much money they earn, their skin colour, gender or sexuality – through their doors. Any child, student, adult or elderly person can fall in love with a book from its shelves, and it won’t cost any of them a penny.
Libraries, unlike profit-seeking companies, are designed to serve the community and the public as a whole. They are multifunctional spaces which offer not only a wealth of intellectual resources, but also practical services like low-cost printing, free WiFi, and computer use. They are also centres for community-building (something which is needed today more than ever), hosting activities and workshops ranging from summer reading schemes to educational courses for job-seekers.
Moreover, if free access to accurate, quality information is one of our best tools against the rise of the far right and fake news, then libraries too are an essential symbol of democracy and equality. While a library cannot direct its users to the most accurate books or websites, it can make sure that those sources are accessible to all sectors of society – and besides, simply reading fiction has been proven to increase empathy, something which is essential to making ethical decisions.
Perhaps my only complaint about libraries is their limited opening hours, which seem to be continually decreasing. But this is only a symptom of a greater problem: chronic underfunding. Between 2017-18, library funding fell by £30m and the number of libraries in the UK dropped by 127. Perhaps more surprising is the impact on those who work to keep them open: over 700 library employees lost their jobs, forcing volunteer numbers to shoot up by 3,000.
So what next for the library?
With the rise of digitalisation, will libraries go out of fashion like DVD rental schemes? I doubt it. Unlike DVDs, many book-lovers don’t just cherish the content but the form of the book: the weight of it in our hands, the smell of new and old pages alike, the feeling of rifling through the pages to find our place… Even those of us who don’t have the space for physical books in our suitcases or shelves can and will turn to a method of borrowing books in a lightweight, modern manner: digital libraries, often managed by our own local public libraries, and which are growing in size and quality by the day.
The public library can and will thrive – but it must adapt, and it must be protected. We must use our libraries with enthusiasm, and remind others of their benefits; we must help when necessary to keep them open; and we must keep adapting to change rather than fearing it.
And so my library love affair continues… multiple books for my final year at Cambridge have been borrowed or accessed online already, but the rest will be dutifully carried from the MML library to my college library and back again, and all the while I will try to look past my momentary reading despair, stare up at the shelves or sink into a beanbag, and remember how grateful I am for shelves upon shelves of free words.
Emma Turner is a freelance travel and opinion writer in her fourth year, studying French and Spanish.
See more from Emma at travelsinateacup.co.uk