On public libraries and ‘value’.

Value, that’s a murky one. It’s got lots of facets, different forms, some abstract some less so. Sadly, I feel like the only kind of ‘value’ many people (and by this I mean influentual people) are interested in is financial or material value. When your value is less tangible then that, it suddenly gets really hard to quantify.

But here’s the thing, librarians are so valuable, but in an abstract kind of way. It’s difficult to make a lot of profit from us, you can’t really put a financial value on a library, our gig is pretty much giving stuff away for free if you want to be really simplistic about it.

I’ve worked in different kinds of libraries, public, FE and HE and in every role I’ve seen firsthand how much people can get from using librares, but I think public libraries are the ones people appreciate least. When I was working in public libraries, it was people from the most disadvantaged parts of the community – people with no computer or internet access, or impoverished parents needing a place to entertain their children, and more – who were using the library most. I take the internet for granted – I have a smartphone, a laptop with both broadband at home and internet access at my workplace. I can spend hours doing meaningless things on the internet, but there are people still out there who do not have this luxury. With more and more of our world becoming digitised, not having access to the internet is a serious barrier to social mobility. People claiming benefits often have to do things online to fulfil criteria to avoid sanctions – I know I did when I was claiming JSA, so access to the internet is pretty important. Especially when a lot of these people don’t have a laptop to abuse the free wi fi places like Starbucks offer. Or the money for a Starbucks in the first place.

I’ve found many people have the attitude that people who get things for free are often derided as being the least deserving. People really love to shit on Amanda Palmer over her kickstarter fund for her last album, or pretty much just for being Amanda Palmer, but I find myself asking ‘why?’

Why do we feel so uncomfortable with letting people have things for free? Why do we think people are somehow less than we are when they have the audacity to ask for things for free, and expect to receive them?

But Palmer keeps asking for more because she fundamentally believes that it’s ok to ask for help. People who need help from the state are derided in much the same way Palmer is, but is it the asking that’s really the issue? Or is it how we’re looking at it? Sorry to bring Thatcher into this, but I’ve been ruminating a lot recently over an often quoted line where she said that ‘there is no such thing as society’. I interpret this to mean that people ought not to have a social conscience, and people should just fixate on protecting themselves, protecting their wealth, protecting their property and protecting their interests but this to me is all kinds of wrong. It’s all well and good sneering at the impoverished now, while you’re comfortable, but what about when you are the person in need?

Moving on from that political aside (I’m writing this on election day so politics is very much at the front of my mind right now), I had to mention it because it ties in well with the value of public libraries. They exist for those who need help, who need community. They exist for everyone, but they have the most value to those who have the least. I feel like if people stopped feeling so uncomfortable about the welfare state, and people getting ‘handouts’ at the cost of the taxpayer, and asking for help, people would be able to see that value far more clearly.

Ok, so I’ve come back to the draft the day after election day, with a heavy heart but I feel like this makes it even more important to advocate for the value of public libraries.

Instead of looking at those worst off in society and asking ‘how come they are getting things for free when I work hard and don’t get help?’ why not change the dialogue? Why not ask new questions?

How can we help those in need to become more self sufficient in order to minimise the strain on our welfare system? How can we equip people born into a life of poverty to change their lives? How can we help people stuck in the cycle of feeling hopeless about their situation break that cycle?

I’d say look to librarians. Look to public libraries. There you will find the free services and assistance that can help people gain the skills and confidence they need to make positive changes in their life. Free computer access, resources to help with literacy levels and language skills, information on citizenship, free spaces for children to learn and play. If that isn’t something we ought to treasure, then I think we need to reassess how we define value.


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