Where did all the libraries go? | Losing Access to literature

By Maria Atter

Since the coalition government began enforcing austerity in 2010, cuts to local council’s funding have forced the closure of nearly 800 public libraries across the country. This figure amounts to almost a fifth of UK libraries having to permanently shut down. In accordance with the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, the government is legally obligated to provide a public library service of good quality – but this is a responsibility that the government has dodged for years. When previously confronted about the amount of library closures across the UK, Boris Johnson blamed local authorities for mismanaging their finances, without accounting for the 30-40% cuts to local council budgets that the coalition government’s austerity programme was responsible for. 

Over 10 million books are said to have been lost as a result of library closures, including close to a million children’s books. While the government has claimed that these stats don’t represent the rise in people borrowing e-books, this form of lending requires readers to have devices like laptops or Kindles, which many children living in poverty won’t have access to. The closure of libraries is a particular blow to users from low-income backgrounds, who are unlikely to have spare money with which to buy books or e-readers.  

Libraries provide so much for communities – whether that be free books, computer access or a space for socialising. Although increasingly staffed by volunteers, they have often been used to pick up the slack in social support, running everything from CV-writing sessions to craft clubs and support groups. There is often no replacement for the services and resources that closed libraries once provided. In their absence, accessibility issues are heightened. The combined challenges of rising poverty, as well as the pandemic and austerity-related library closures, has meant that for many households, there is neither the money nor the means for children to obtain new books to read. 

The impact of Covid-19 on children reading

The pandemic has exacerbated what was already a big problem. When the first national lockdown began in March, libraries were placed in the ‘non-essential’ category and had no option but to temporarily close. During the second lockdown, many public libraries continued to offer click and collect services, with some also providing home deliveries and essential access to bookable computers. Throughout the second lockdown, school libraries were allowed to remain open with social-distancing measures in place, but a lot of schools have been forced to reduce their capacity or discontinue their services altogether in an effort to keep Covid transmission rates down. Some schools now only allow certain year groups to access the library, while others rely on a book reservation system. 

Part of the reason why school libraries are so essential is that books are downright expensive when purchased first-hand and cheaper, second-hand books often remain out of budget for families living on the breadline. School libraries are indispensable to young people, especially those who don’t have books of their own or a public library nearby. According to the National Literacy Trust, “1 in 11 disadvantaged children in the UK say that they don’t have a book of their own.” A lack of access to reading material is likely to have a knock-on effect on a child’s literacy level, especially considering that children living in poverty begin school “with vocabularies up to 19 months behind their better-off peers.” The pandemic is expected to widen these existing disparities. In July 2020, a report on children’s reading habits before and during lockdown showed that “a third of children and young people were reading more during lockdown”, with nearly 1 in 2 children saying they had read new books. However, the same report noted that “some children have faced greater barriers to reading”, mostly as a result of ‘school or library closures, a lack of quiet space and a lack of school/peer support’. These factors prevent children from underprivileged backgrounds from receiving the benefits of reading, including the positive effect it can have on mental health and classroom performance.

Marcus Rashford’s literacy campaign

These are problems that Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford, is determined to improve. Last month, Rashford announced that he would be collaborating with Macmillan Children’s Books for a new project focused on encouraging children to read. The partnership has launched the Marcus Rashford Book Club and plans to publish a variety of books for children aged 5-18, with a specific aim to reach children from under-privileged backgrounds. Having successfully campaigned against child food poverty – a campaign that led to two government U-turns this year, Rashford has continued to use his platform to address social issues. In his new partnership with Macmillan, he will be championing the importance of children reading and having access to books.

It’s a project that is close to home for Rashford. In his press release, he talked about his own childhood, writing that “books were never a thing we could budget for as a family when we needed to put food on the table. There were times as a child the escapism of reading could have really helped me. I want this escapism for all children. Not just those that can afford it.” 

The value of reading extends far beyond just practising literacy skills – books provide stories to disappear into and characters to empathise with; they inspire in children a curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. Rashford referred to some of these merits in the press release for his Macmillan publishing partnership: “Let our children read that they are not alone and enable them to dream. Equip them for obstacles and adversities they might face. Allow them to relate to the characters by making sure people of all race, religion and gender are depicted correctly and representative of modern society.”

Reading initiatives to support this Christmas

Access to books for under-privileged children is a big issue but thankfully not one that has gone entirely unnoticed. Besides Rashford’s newly founded book club and publishing partnership, there are several other schemes that focus on addressing issues of accessibility to literature. Bookshop.org have partnered up with Penguin this Christmas to launch their ‘It Begins with a Book’ initiative. For every book purchased from the ‘It Begins with a Book’ list, Penguin donates a book to grassroots causes across Britain, including community centres, food banks and homeless shelters. There is also BookTrust, the UK’s largest reading charity, which runs various programmes that provide children with free books. Donations to BookTrust go towards supplying books for children who are in care, using food banks or eligible for free school meals – this Christmas they are aiming to reach over 14,250 vulnerable children.

It is vital that books are available for all children to read, not just those from higher-income backgrounds. For this to happen, books need to be free and readily available. Supporting charitable initiatives is definitely important, but more government funding for public libraries will be necessary in the long run if we wish to truly confront the accessibility issues to reading. In doing so, the government will have to address an issue of its own making. 

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage