We need public libraries in Stoke-on-Trent now more than ever

Amid the carnage of multi-million pound public sector austerity measures there are many decisions which make us sit up and think.

I’ve said before many times that I don’t envy the politicians who have to take the tough calls.

It’s a lose-lose situation for them because you can always make a case for not cutting service A or service B.

Ultimately, from the outside looking in, it comes down to personal preferences and vested interests as opposed to any kind of business case or footfall figures.

When city councillors were considering doing away with the Lord Mayor’s office that had yours truly in a lather.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed and we didn’t ditch the role of First Citizen.

As the dust begins to settle on the council’s enforced belt-tightening, I’ve become increasingly concerned about a perennial soft target.

Yesterday The Sentinel reported that funding for public libraries in Stoke-on-Trent has fallen by £700,000 in three years from £4.1m to £3.4m this year.

The libraries in Burslem and Fenton have closed and the number of librarians has been reduced from 16 to just nine.

Why should we care? Libraries are hardly saving lives or providing a vital service, some might argue.

Wrong.

They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and, in the case of public libraries, I believe we have reached a tipping point.

After years of under-funding and successive regimes of councillors taking the view that a little trimming of this non-essential service won’t hurt, libraries in the city are barely able to function.

Opening hours have been slashed, staff numbers dramatically reduced and – perhaps worst of all – there seems no cohesive plan for the future of the ones that are still open.

The best assurance we can glean from council is that no further cutbacks are planned. Presumably, until the next round, that is.

I’m not saying libraries don’t have their problems.

Like the industry I work in, you could argue they have been slow to adapt to changing habits and struggled to cope with the advent of the internet.

Yes, books are cheaper than ever. Yes, many people read books using little hand-held computers which download new titles.

Yes, many people have access to the internet in their own homes or at work or school so no longer require a traditional reference library.

Yes, user-numbers are down because these facilities have yet to redefine themselves in the digital age.

However, at their heart, public libraries offer something unique which we should treasure and nurture.

They are part of the glue that binds our communities together – offering learning and social experiences to all, irrespective of background or circumstance.

This isn’t me harking back to the days when I used to walk from Sneyd Green up to the reference library at Hanley to use the Encyclopaedia Britannica for my high school history homework.

This is me arguing that, at a time when standards of literacy in our city are perilously low and our multi-cultural communities are struggling to integrate and communicate, libraries are still immensely important and relevant.

Not every child will have safe, supervised access to the internet at home. Not every child has a book case that is refreshed regularly. Not every child will go to sleep with their heads filled with bedtime stories read by their parents to help shape their dreams.

Libraries can help to fill these voids and prevent the creation of more video game and television zombies.

Ever heard of ‘baby bounce’? It’s something sleep-deprived parents take their little ’uns to on a wet week-day morning.

It gets them out of the house and introduces children to the fun of nursery rhymes, songs, bouncing games and simple musical instruments.

For a baby or toddler it is enormously entertaining and, crucially, educational – while for parents buckling under the relentless pressure of a small child it offers cups of tea and some sympathy in adversity.

I can tell you, as a dad, that such sessions remind you that those days of your child’s life are golden and fleeting.

All that said, it is worth saying that libraries offer ‘baby bounce’. Along with wonderful story-telling sessions, themed weeks, game days, knit and natter sessions – the list goes on.

This is because libraries are, and should be, far more than just big buildings full of old books.

They are creative focal points and meeting places in neighbourhoods that have lost community centres, post offices and pubs.

Libraries are places where friendships are made, skills are acquired and learning is, quite genuinely, a fun experience.

Rich or poor, bereft of inspiration or aspiration, you can wander in and use or borrow books, music or films that will entertain you. You can meet people and take away ideas for life.

This is a luxury we should never take for granted in the age of subscriptions and pay-per view entertainment.

It is time we stopped butchering our libraries and put together a strategy to expand and develop the services they offer to make them even more relevant to diverse communities who, perhaps, have never needed them more.

The best things in life are free, we are told.

While libraries may cost taxpayers a tiny sum each year, as a society we are infinitely richer for the presence of these free, cultural temples.

Long may this remain the case.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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