Telegraph Voices: Are public libraries still relevant in our modern digital society?

Are public libraries still relevant in our modern digital society?
Are public libraries still relevant in our modern digital society?

Are public libraries still relevant in our modern digital society? We asked members of the public and library workers their views.

Rachael Scott

Rachael Scott

Rachael Scott

As a child, my mother would take us to the library. We would spend hours perusing the shelves, flicking through books, sharing stories, taking ourselves to magical worlds beyond our imagination. I remember being desperate to be old enough to use the ‘grown ups’ library next door, and then finally becoming a teenager and discovering a whole new world of books open to me.

The excitement and passion for reading was something I was keen to instil in my own child. Last July I gave birth to beautiful, healthy baby girl. My head was filled with ideas about the mother I wanted to be: singing songs, baking cakes, reading books and playing imaginative games all day long!

The reality was something very different, I was anxious, paranoid and scared to go out in case something happened to us. Post natal depression quickly moved into our house and was holding me prisoner. A few months in, starting to receive help and support, the fog began to clear, so I decided to register my daughter at the local library. I drove to the new Woodseats library as this was the closest.

As soon as I walked in, it was like my memories came alive, the excitement and passion was all there waiting to be rediscovered. I visited the desk, greeted with a friendly face (have you ever noticed librarians have familiar faces) and was given a new card for me and one for my daughter. I admired the new check in/out system like an old granny ‘ooh they didn’t have theses in my day!’ and off I went to the books.

Chris Reece

Chris Reece

I remember stroking each book along the shelves as if tickling an old memory, I searched for books from my childhood, keen to share them with my sleeping child. I checked out three books and brought them home to show my husband. He spent the evening reading them again and again with our daughter. This simple trip to the library changed our lives that day. I started to feel joy again, I had a desire to try new things and most importantly I wanted to share those moments with my daughter.

A few weeks later, I returned her books and the cycle started all over again. Then I discovered rhyme time; a little baby group that meets every week to sing nursery rhymes and play with musical instruments. It was perfect! Another reason to visit the library with my daughter. I met other mum’s there and started going for coffee afterwards. Now Woodseats library is one of our default options when deciding what to do with our long days together.

Public libraries are so important to our society. They offer a variety of opportunities to the community. They are a conduit for the next generation. One that is increasingly burdened my technology and instant gratification. By showing a child a book, you open their minds to think creatively, learn new things at their own pace. It gives them a reason to want to go to bed a night. I reason to cuddle that distant relative; holding their favourite story. Libraries will always make children feel safe, there’s always something new to discover and most importantly a child has control over what that may be.

My daughter is now one, every time we visit the library she smiles. She knows where her books are kept and will always find a friend to play with. It’s one place I can go to when I’m feeling anxious and i know it’ll be peaceful and quiet: a balm to my frazzled mind. I honestly don’t know where else I’d rather be than in my local library.

Joan Longstone-Hull and Chris Reece

Joan Longstone-Hull and Chris Reece

Chris Reece, volunteer at Walkley library

The importance of this debate is highlighted by the creation of the Libraries Task Force and the continuing research from the Carnegie Trust into the future role of public libraries. The keyword is “public” meaning that libraries should be freely accessible to all and should focus on the social, economic, welfare and cultural needs of the community.

Books have always been the linchpin of libraries which, since their inception have acknowledged the need to encompass learning and training. They have embraced technology from the early “Wireless Discussion Groups” and newspapers on microfilm to the current e-library services, and in Sheffield, Wi-Fi, updated IT and computer and job-seeking training are available in most libraries.

Since 2014, all libraries in Sheffield regardless of their set-up, have worked together, sharing expertise and ideas creatively to retain and increase the numbers and range of customers, whilst expanding and improving activities and facilities. Recent innovations have included book launches, poetry readings, film nights, craft-making, language taster sessions and talks on well-being and health issues.

Eleanor Savill

Eleanor Savill

Libraries have also forged partnerships with local businesses, who may provide services or sponsorship to benefit the community. Community and charity grants also play a vital part in our survival and it is encouraging to see both Heritage lottery and Arts Council funding being made available for building restoration and educational projects. Additional support comes from working with local organisations, forums, universities, festivals and in some cases commercial partners. It is also important to work alongside organisations like the Community Managed Library Network, the Children’s University, the Reading Agency who support the popular Summer Reading Challenge, and Sheffield initiatives like the Children’s Book Awards and Off the Shelf.

Many libraries now have their own book collections which run in parallel with the SCC book-stock, increasing the offer of new fiction, non-fiction and books for children and young adults. For those who doubt the relevance and efficiency of the services, we invite you to visit one or more libraries to experience the vitality and change within these safe and welcoming community buildings.

Richard Heeley, Woodhouse Library Manager and Joan Longstone-Hull, library and volunteer coordinator

Most definitely, libraries are often the heart of local communities and they have and need to develop further to meet the requirements of modern society.

The Woodhouse Community Library, which is run by volunteers, is central to our community.

The library offers the usual facilities such as book loans (including large print), talking books, DVD, jigsaws, photocopying service and IT resource. In addition the library provides learning/up-skilling opportunities. At the moment the library is able to offer facilities for chair aerobics, Tai Chi, yoga, Music Group, men’s health awareness, computer awareness, Job Club, reading group, adult craft groups and health walks, which are all very well attended.

Our library is also used as a meeting place. The Woodhouse & District Community Forum holds their monthly meetings here and we have two councillor surgeries each month. We hold regular Saturday coffee mornings and children’s craft activities.

Some people may consider libraries are just a place for borrowing reading material. This is not the case as we have had to diversify to accommodate modern living. For example, Woodhouse has a large number of older people who use the library facilities to come and chat - often we are the only people they will engage with during the week. We also have young families that do not have extended family in the area; again they will often come for advice or help with day to day problems in their lives. We work with schools and children’s groups to bring children into the library, which helps with their reading and interaction skills. We see libraries as a very relevant and important service for social interaction.

Eleanor Savill

This question assumes everyone has access to this "modern digital society" and that nobody relies on libraries for digital services.

In 2017 The Good Things Foundation published their report "The real digital divide?" In it they reported that 7.8 million people in the UK don't have access to, or use, the internet, 7.4 million use it infrequently. Of these 15.2 million with limited access, 90% are working class or unemployed, lack skills or education, or have poor health or a disability.

We can't all access "our modern digital society", and those who can't are the most disadvantaged. If you haven’t looked at the cost of a digital device and thought "that's a new pair of shoes for the bairn, or 6 month's food", or felt anxious about how to use or access increasingly vital technology, then you're lucky, millions aren't.

Of course, libraries began to offer digital services as soon as they saw this need, because their core purpose is to ensure free access to information and learning. Services offered include access to the internet, computers, EBooks (which aren't free from Amazon just because they're digital), online databases, but also classes teaching digital skills, from beginners IT to coding.

Alongside these services, and despite ill-informed criticisms that “libraries need to modernise”, Libraries also provide many important community and educational services that aren't digital. Books of course, but also; chatting with otherwise isolated people, helping with job applications, reading schemes, invited speakers, braille books, rhyme time for babies, health related "Books on Prescription", adult learning classes, special interest groups, book clubs, author visits, information requests, home delivery, community meeting spaces, and that rare thing, a free, safe, and warm place to spend some time, all on tiny budgets (imagine the potential if they were properly funded!)

Are they relevant? They're essential!