The Value of Libraries by Katie Isbester
Every community, every family and every person needs a place to belong. We all need a building where we feel safe and comfortable. However, we need space for growth. Libraries provide this space to learn, assemble thoughts, and find where we individually belong in a world that often feels vast. In her blog The Value of Libraries, Katie Isbester delves into why 94% of Britain feels libraries are essential. But she also explores why places focused on books and progress are fundamental to literacy in Western Kenya. Literacy is a gateway to communication and employment which we often take for granted in Britain; at Nasio Trust we want to move towards universal literacy. Our library appeal is the first step.
The Value of Libraries by Katie Isbester
Here’s some good news. In the UK, libraries bind communities up. They are one of the few public spaces that is fully free and fairly evenly used between the classes, the generations, and the sexes. It’s a public resource that genuinely serves all members of the public, old and young, sick and healthy, employed and unemployed.
And the average Brit seems to appreciate that. According to data from 2019-2020, 94% of people think that libraries are essential, very important or fairly important. It makes you want to ask what’s wrong with the 6% who think otherwise.
A library does more than just lend books out. In a world where the internet is spotty or computers are expensive or too complicated to figure out, libraries are the reservoirs of changes happening within the community, whether it’s at the local level or at the national. In places where governance is open to criticism, a library can hold public meetings; it’s an institution that inherently confers legitimacy, thereby enhancing the safety of stating a criticism aloud. In places where there is a greater demand for education than there is a supply, a library builds human capital and learning.
And then there are the subjective numbers, which are so high that they made me blink in surprise when I read them. According to one Arts Council 2015 study, once all other factors are controlled for, libraries are positively associated with subjective wellbeing, with library users having higher life satisfaction, happiness and sense of purpose in life.
So these are the numbers that support building a library as a form of socio-economic and politically democratic development. I like numbers. I like the cool, calm rationality of them. They soothe me. But I also like stories. Library users abound with stories.
The bookworms who found an escape there, the friends who found each other, the volunteers who honed a skill and got a second wind because of them, the authors who love going to them and talking to readers and the readers who love them back, the kids who use it for a safe place to hang out after school until a parent comes home, the amateur researcher who pulls in university texts about the arcane, the mother figuring out how put on a show-stopping wedding. There are as many stories as there are people. Listen to enough of these stories and you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement and thinking to yourself, that could have been me.
Somewhat bizarrely, our government has cut funding to such an extent that 800 libraries (or a fifth of the total) have had to close since 2011, despite widespread protests and campaigns to save them. Even more bizarrely, then-PM David Cameron, who headed the austerity campaign that made enormous cuts to the local councils, wrote a letter of complaint to Oxfordshire local council when it was forced to close libraries. And his mum signed a petition against it too. You just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Fortunately, there are those who insist on keeping their libraries or even building new ones. Lambeth Council built a new library by building flats above it and renting them out. The British Library continues to showcase its extraordinary collection through exhibitions that bring in people from around the world; I recently took a friend from the Canadian Arctic to see the original Magna Carta, which is displayed there, and its exhibition of fantasy literature. And Nasio Trust is building the first public library in western Kenya.
The library that Nasio Trust is building will strengthen all the other changes it is doing by informing the populace and embracing feedback. The library will offset insecurities, anxieties and conflicts that will inevitably arise by offering a safe space for people to share and debate. It will reinforce literacy and broaden learning even for those already literate. It will introduce the people of western Kenya to their national government and to the world. Most importantly, it will help to create a happier, healthier and most positive people.
That’s an awful lot to ask of any one building. And yet that’s what libraries do – here, there and everywhere.