06 July 2015

Lament for libraries

I was extremely upset to read on the Courier’s website a few weeks ago of Fife Cultural Trust's plans to close 16 of Fife's libraries (roughly one third of the libraries in Fife), including the two that are dearest to my heart, Glenwood Library and Pitteuchar Library. This post is a reworked version of what I wrote to my local councillors a few weeks ago, since they were going to be meeting to discuss the proposals.

Having spent all my life living in Glenrothes, I grew up at a time when everything was brand new. Glenrothes was built with neighbourhood centres containing shops, libraries and other community services, and safe walking routes to them, so that people did not have to drive to access these vital services. My house and my primary school were brand-new. I didn’t realise as a child that the shiny new world I’d been born into would not always be that way.

My childhood was spent in Pitteuchar, and Pitteuchar Library was where I fell in love with books and reading. I read nearly every book on the children's shelves in that library, having a voracious reading habit that would have cost my parents a lot if they'd had to fund it out of their own pocket. At that point my parents had to start taking me to Glenwood Library so that I would have access to more books.

Glenwood Library has been my library ever since. As a teenager and young adult I would walk there from Pitteuchar, and, when I finally bought a house of my own, I moved into a more deprived area of Glenrothes, partly because the library would be on my doorstep. I look out of my back door on tiptoe to check whether the library is open by whether the shutters are up or down! I frequently borrow books from Glenwood Library (there is a pile of library books sitting on my coffee table as I type this), and I also did lots of research in the Reference Room there when I was writing a local history book and magazine articles. Lots of people don't realise that Glenwood Library has always been the main library in Glenrothes - the library at the Rothes Halls is much smaller, without a reference room, and would be a poor replacement.
Some of the libraries earmarked for closure, including Glenwood Library, are in areas of deprivation. People in these areas need access to books and computers, and may not be able to afford them. Many services these days are only available online, so access to a computer is vital. Many people in these areas do not have cars, and would be highly unlikely to make a walk to the Rothes Halls (which would take almost half an hour) to visit the library there.

But libraries are also so much more than just the books and computers contained within them. The libraries are also vital social hubs in these highly deprived areas. There are no coffee shops to linger in, no public outdoor spaces where you could sit and read a book. Generally the Glenwood Centre is somewhere you go in and out of as quickly as possible, but the library is a safe space within that. I feel that the loss of my local library would add to many people's social isolation.

I visited Glenwood Library on the afternoon of the day that the Courier article was published. Despite the article saying these are only proposals, there seemed to be a sense of resignation from the staff that these closures are most likely inevitable, and they said that volunteers for redundancy or early retirement had already been asked for. These staff have been placed in the very difficult position of having to explain the situation to the library users, when they themselves are visibly upset by the proposals. I hope that they are being given the support they need at this difficult time.

I’m sure that when Fife Cultural Trust took over the running of the libraries, it was not with a remit of reducing services. The trust is saying that these proposals will “transform” Fife’s libraries, but I’m sure that the majority of users, like me, are not looking for any form of transformation, and would rather that the money involved in any such transformation be used to retain the current services (with perhaps some cuts in opening hours if costs need to be reduced). It also worries me that Fife Cultural Trust may be sneakily trying to soften the blow of some library closures by announcing a large number of closures, then going back on that and saying they will close only some of them.
Pitteuchar Library and Glenwood Library have inspired my life-long love of books and reading, and this has in turn enabled me to write magazine articles, this very blog with its readers around the world, and a local history book, as well as studying to postgraduate level. Local libraries are a valuable resource, and I for one will miss them greatly if they do close.

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