We would be all the poorer without libraries

BETWEEN the ages of 14 and 16, every Saturday morning I would walk the mile or so from my house in Sneyd Green to the city centre with a rucksack slung over my shoulder.
My destination was Hanley Library and I didn’t mind the trek because I was on a homework mission.
Geoff Ball, that most charismatic and engaging of history teachers at Holden Lane High, would ask my class to find out everything we could about a certain historical figure.
So it was upstairs to the reference library I would head in search of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I can still recall the smell of those black, leather-bound tomes.
I’ve always been a bookworm which is why I loved the library. I wasn’t interested in borrowing videos, records or those new-fangled CDs. I was there for the books.
I vividly recall swotting up on Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – and the ensuing pride at my pencil sketch of the Italian dictator.
This was, of course, the mid Eighties – otherwise known, children, as before the internet.
If you wanted to find something out you didn’t type it into a search engine, you went and looked it up in a book.
You see, as much as I enjoy the benefits of the digital age, I have to say I’m still a terrible snob when it comes to the written word.
I’ll defend books, and libraries, to the death and when I read about the closure of these bastions of learning as part of council cutbacks I can’t help but feel incredibly sad and worried for the future.
There’s something about having a library card and visiting a place dedicated to knowledge.
You see, despite what successive governments have been telling us, no-one can convince me that standards of literacy are going up year-on-year.
I think the truth is that so much emphasis these days is placed on computer-based learning that generations of children are growing up without a love or appreciation of books which I think is a crying shame. And, at the risk of sounding like some dinosaur, give me a good book any day of the week – something I can hold in my hand – as opposed to a screen to stare at.
I visit schools to be shown the wonderful LRCs (learning resource centres) filled with lap top computers – and then despair at the fact that I have a bigger library of actual books upstairs at home.
On Sunday morning I sat with my eldest daughter Lois, who is six, and watched open-mouthed as she navigated her way around her school’s website – or ‘virtual learning environment’.
Now I don’t mind her spending a little time on a PC because Lois loves real books. We’ve read to her every night since she was six months old and she’s never without a Meg and Mog story, a Horrid Henry book or something by Julia Donaldson.
She’s also got a complete children’s encyclopedia which she’s now using every week to help her to get more out of the different topics at school.
I know that she’ll grow up with a love of books akin to my own but I wonder how many other children – shoved in front of a telly, wired into a games console or glued to a computer screen for hours on end will be as fortunate.
Yes, I understand full well that the ability to rip stuff off the internet is an essential tool for school children and students these days.
But I fear that this aversion to books is genuinely damaging.
Critics argue that libraries have failed to adapt to changing times and fashions.
They say, with some justification, that learning habits have changed, that books, music and DVDs are cheap to buy and that information is readily available via the worldwide web.
In other words – libraries as we know them, the libraries that I grew up with, are past their sell-by date.
Wrong. Anyone who has ever visited a library and watched a children’s story session knows what a magic libraries can weave.
Anyone who, like me, spent a little time at a library on World Book Night understands the key role these places have – the way in which they can bring people together through literature and the arts.
They may have to evolve further and offer other local authority services but I feel very strongly that libraries are crucial to our communities and that we would be all the poorer without them.

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