• Thu. May 30th, 2024

The Importance of Public Libraries: Environmentalism and Community

ByAggie Bright

Nov 9, 2023
Bookshelves in a library

Scottish author Ali Smith describes her collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, as a book that “celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” Her imaginative short stories are bookmarked by her friends’ eloquent answers to the question “What do libraries mean to you?”. The sense of community in the collection imitates the community created by public libraries. 

The United Kingdom’s tradition of public libraries gives us equal access to books. The existence of public libraries lets us read in a neutral space, without being consumers. While there is a joy to buying books in independent bookshops or reading in cafés, there is something special about being given a public space to read that does not demand commercialism. In the face of cuts – figures have revealed that one in eight Scottish libraries have permanently closed since 2010 and spending has fallen by thirty per cent – the loss of our public libraries would jeopardise the democracy of reading. 

The positive force of public libraries can be felt across all stages of life. Lis Phelan, ex-director of libraries and theatres in Manchester said “libraries have the potential to make a major contribution to social inclusion, education, life-long learning, health promotion, employment and business support.” While books are obviously the primary importance of public libraries, as institutions they also play an important role in the social and cultural life of their communities. Edinburgh City Libraries offer free hearing aid batteries, ‘Bookbug’ sessions for children ages 0 to 4 years old, a mobile library that visits care homes, retirement flats and sheltered housing complexes, and Macmillan Cancer Support. The necessity of public libraries from the point of view of social and community welfare cannot be underestimated. 

The environmental footprint of a book is another important consideration. Climate change scientist and University of Edinburgh professor, David Reay, worked out that every book produced in the United Kingdom produces around three kilograms of CO2. Making an e-reader like a Kindle requires the extraction of fourteen kilograms of minerals and produces the same CO2 as thirty books. Undoubtedly, the best way to read in an environmentally conscious way is by getting a library card. I took out a library book this week with stamps dating back to March 1975. It’s comforting that the carbon footprint has been offset, and there’s a sentimentality in knowing that for years these pages have been thumbed and dog-eared.

To quote a poem written by the Scottish poet Jackie Kay as part of the Artworks for Libraries project: “The library is the place that gets you. Pure gold.”

Library Bookshelf” by twechy is licensed under CC BY 2.0