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In defence of public libraries

I’ve always resisted the idea that reading is an expensive hobby. Orwell broke down that myth seventy years ago, observing that reading was no more expensive than smoking or drinking, which is still as true now as it was then. Even more so because he couldn’t have predicted the invention of the internet, which has done more to democratise knowledge than anybody could ever have anticipated. Fundamentally my thinking ran that the people that said they were too poor to educate themselves were making excuses, because as long as we had libraries education was open to everyone. But mass library closures across the UK puts this into question. As someone that has always used libraries as spaces for learning and reflection, it’s obvious that what makes them rare is that they discriminate against nobody. The social value within a community is therefore priceless; particularly to those that would otherwise have no means of accessing the information they need to make some progress in life.

We hear constantly from conservatives about how hard work, personal responsibility and economic empowerment are the routes out of poverty. It is better to help people to help themselves; but reducing the public sector no matter the social consequences is a shit way to do this. Libraries are not malignant forces – they promote education as a collective good and provide people with some basic resources they might need to make progress in school, work and life. When I was volunteering at my local library, it was impossible to miss how it helped people deal with everyday tasks involving things like their banking, job applications, IT skills, reading and writing…it was particularly obvious how crucial qualified librarians were to immigrants trying to better assimilate into the town.

Conservative thinking (at best) generally goes that the same legal rights should apply to everyone, but that’s as far as it should to go when it comes to achieving equality. Leaving it there, and pretending the only difference between the rich and poor is hard work, presumes everyone starts life from the same socio-economic standpoint, which will never be true.¬†Libraries stand in direct protest to this, because their existence tells people that anybody can access the resources that they need to learn, and that education doesn’t have to be something reserved only for those with thousands to spend. I think this is a principle that should be defended. Take a look at the campaigns being run against library closures at¬†Save our Libraries.

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