To mark National Libraries Day, The Huffington Post UK travels to Newcastle upon Tyne where a soon-to-be demolished local library plays a vital role in a community already savaged by the economic crisis, to pose the question: what do we really stand to lose by cutting funding to our local libraries?
Everyone agrees: it doesn’t look like much from the outside.
A typical example of 60s public building architecture, Newbiggin Hall Library is all harsh blocks and barred windows. Cynical metal barbs line the roof. The ‘Welcome To The Library’ sign is drab to the point of appearing sarcastic.
But on the inside sunlight unexpectedly floods the enormous room.
The wide 'welcome' desk, the rows of crime novels, biographies, large print and Mills & Boons, the carefully arranged kids’ area with its teddy bears and picture books, and at the furthest end, the settees and the coffee table topped with tea and biscuits, all bask in the Spring sunshine.
“Everyone who comes in here feels welcome,” says Eileen Canham, 77, making herself a cuppa.
“It’s a home from home. It’s where we all first met each other, and where we come now to catch up.”
The group of local residents sat around Eileen don’t agree on everything, but for a surprising variety of reasons, they agree on this: their library means a lot to them. And they’re worried. Because in the coming weeks, the building they’re sat in is going to be demolished.
First: some disclosure. I worked in Newbiggin Hall library for two years between 2006 and 2008. My memories are of packed Saturdays and weekday evenings spent rushing from one corner of the library to the other, chastising rowdy groups of school children one moment and reading the back of audio books out loud to the elderly the next.
When I heard that Newcastle City Council were planning to shrink it into a nearby community centre, cut the opening hours and reduce the staffing down to one, I wondered what sort of an impact this would have on a working class area that supports four schools and a population of 11,500, 24% of which are on benefits and 53% of which have no academic qualifications whatsoever.
Walking around Newbiggin Hall estate, an area on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it has been forgotten somehow.
The community revolves around a long shopping arcade that is home to about 20 shop fronts. Or at least it should be. Instead, two thirds of them at least are empty, shut over with corrugated iron.
The few that do remain are the things that were once the cornerstones of local life in Britain: a butchers and a chemist, a hardware store and a sandwich shop-come-greengrocers, all privately run, all open, and all empty.
“When the library moves, it’ll be another nail in the coffin” says Julie Hepworth, owner of Jo-Jos sandwich shop.
Just three years ago, I tell her, when I’d come in for my lunch, the place was packed. The queues were out the door. What happened?
“When everything started closing down, the passing trade went. People visiting the working men’s club or the community centre or the library would pop in for a sandwich on their way. Now they’re all gone or going, and things will only get worse.”
Julie used to employ a couple of members of staff. Now, she says, she’s working 60 hours a week on her own, but still doesn’t expect the shop to survive.
The staff in the butchers and the hardware store all say the same. Business is tough, and with the library gone, it’s going to get even tougher.
The ongoing campaigns to save local libraries have been characterised by their critics as middle class crusades, carried out by people who don’t even use the services they’re trying to protect. Dwindling numbers of users and declining levels of book borrowing – thanks largely to the internet and e-books – are both used as evidence that public libraries are simply archaic institutions dying a natural death.
The government appears to agree. Local authorities have been ordered to make deep cuts to their budgets – £1.2m in two years in Newcastle – resulting in library closures or reductions in services around the country.
But this line of thinking overlooks the crucial roles that libraries like Newbiggin Hall play in their communities. The fact that most of the visitors I speak to are there because they don’t own their own computers or broadband - a situation faced by over 60,000 people across the city - only tells part of the story.
For the area’s elderly residents and young families, the library is the last remaining bastion of that ideal David Cameron so cherished in the heady, idealistic days before double-dipping recessions: community.
“Coffee mornings, story times, reading groups, sewing groups, class visits, computer taster sessions, author visits, craft sessions and magic shows for the kids – we have them all,” says Debbie, one of three rotating staff members who man Newbiggin Hall library.
“Yesterday a young lady came in who was very depressed. She burst into tears. I sat with her for over an hour, printing photographs from her Facebook account for her. We cheered her up, made her day. We know we did. It was nothing to do with books, but it was your library.”
It’s a long-standing joke among all local library staff that their jobs are really more akin to being social workers or child minders, but sporadically, this is precisely what the public expect them to be.
At Newbiggin Hall the staff bring in homemade cakes, trace ancestries, get people together with their local councillors, call older readers to check they’re ok when it’s icy, calm tantrums, help with homework and mop up the odd sets of tears – and they do it all whilst stamping the odd book, too.
Among the hardest hit by closures at libraries like this one will be the group in society least able to object: local children and teenagers, who use the space as a warm, safe place to hang out in the evenings.
These are the kids whose parents are either busy working or just indifferent to the fact they’re out late at night, the kids who will spend even more time walking listlessly through the streets instead.
But perhaps the saddest thing is that the residents of Newbiggin Hall are among the lucky ones.
Buoyed by a successful renovation of the city centre library, Newcastle County Council – for now at least – retain an appetite for public libraries not matched in many parts of the country.
Rather than close branches outright, they’re pursuing the "community provision" strategy which means merging them into gyms or community halls and replacing staff with self-service machines like the ones in supermarkets.
“We’re trying to create buildings that reflect the best of retail, so that it feels like going in John Lewis. That’s what we’re aiming for,” David Fay, City Libraries' Manager tells me.
But for all the council’s rhetoric about an evolving service, what downsizing and replacing staff with machines really means is that the personal touch people value will slowly fade from the library experience.
John Lewis may be a good model in terms of efficiency and aesthetics, but the beauty of visiting a good library is that it doesn’t feel like another cordial transaction but like visiting a home from home and relaxing with others in your community.
As Debbie puts it: “They can count how many people come into the building and the number of books that are being taken out. But what they can’t count is everything else - chatting to the readers, helping them learn new things. Working in this sort of place, it’s all to do with the people.”
So far, 32 libraries and 43 mobile libraries in the UK have closed down. But in the year to come, particularly after new budgets are announced in April, Public Library News predicts that a further 408 libraries are under threat of going the same way.
Weighed against potential loses to the health service or education, the case for libraries - even those like Newbiggin Hall – is difficult to make. The government line is thumping and insistent: normal people have to be hit somewhere, so where do you want it to be?
But it’s important that as a society we know exactly what it is we stand to lose.
Cynics who imagine empty, dusty rooms of decaying books and the local authorities who dream of a future where libraries are sanitised internet cafes are both overlooking the real issue: when these places stop doing the jobs of the closed youth clubs and church groups and community halls – who or what will replace them?
When places like Newbiggin Hall finally emerge from the recession, having sacrificed its shops, clubs, pubs, community centres and finally, its library, to the 'new austerity', what will be left; a disparate community of strangers, wandering from one self-service machine to the next, the real manifestation of the Big Society.
More pictures from Newbiggin Hall: