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The austerity story: How Spain fell in love with books again as locals flood back to libraries

An unlikely effect of the Spanish  economic crisis has been a huge rise in the popularity of literature

Every evening in the heart of Granada’s working class suburb of the Zaidín, local residents nip inside their district library at the Plaza de las Palomas with one set of books, either under their arms or in shopping bags. They come out, moments later, with another batch: pretty much what you’d expect, except that this library officially closed two years ago, has no paid workers and, with the electricity cut off, operates by candlelight.

“We are at a critical juncture,” says Celia Calvo, one of the dozen or so volunteers for whom multi-tasking in her free time at the library - from archiving thousands of donated books and organising cultural activities and protests to registering book loans and returns - has now become almost automatic.

“The weather is warm now and there’s long summer evenings, but if we continue with no electricity when the winter dark and cold comes in, it’s going be very difficult.” The morning The Independent visited, the mains water supply was still working, but “we don’t know for how long,” she said.

Ms Cavos points out that as the Las Palomas library’s survival teeters on a knife-edge, and  drastic government recession-induced cuts see dozens of public library spending budgets cut by 60 per cent or more, Spain’s deeply ingrained resistance to reading for pleasure is finally disappearing. In 2003, Spain was one of three EU nations (together with Portugal and Greece) with the lowest average number of regular readers: just 47 per cent (compared to 70 per cent in Scandinavia and the UK) said they read at least one book a year. Now, though, that figure has risen to nearly 60 per cent.

However, while libraries are increasingly at peril from spending cuts, as part of the embattled country’s attempts to solve its financial crisis, the desire to use these institutions among recession-hit Spaniards is booming. In Andalusia, where Granada is situated, there has been a 50.6 per cent rise in library borrowers since Spain’s economic troubles began in 2008. In some extreme cases, such as in Seville’s libraries, it is up by 150 per cent.

“Above all there are more men,” says Roberta Megias Alcalde, a librarian working in a village near Granada, La Zubia. “Whereas before you’d mainly have housewives coming in for novels, now there’s a lot more unemployment and everybody in the household is borrowing books.” She and other librarians also say the recession has seen a large increase in the presence of the homeless in libraries, “many to read, others to get a wash and brush up”.

Her library, though, has faced dramatic cutbacks, with its staff reduced to just herself from January. As for Las Palomas, it was shut down by Granada town hall with no advance warning in August 2011, using the argument that a brand new library had been built on the far side of the Zaidín district. “Since then,” says Ms Calvo, “they’ve blamed the closure on the cuts too.”

Those supporting Las Palomas point out that according to regional Spanish laws, with its 44,000 inhabitants the Zaidín should have two libraries, not one. They also say the new library, well over a mile away, is too far from the district’s centre, too student-orientated for their elderly clients and does not respond to the needs of one of the poorest areas of Granada, where for decades families have lived jammed together in a labyrinth of cramped flats and houses and narrow streets.

“This library is small and can’t cope with all the district, it’s vast,” says Las Palomas volunteer Encarnación Gonzalez Martin, “and we supported the opening of the other one -  but on condition this library wasn’t closed.”

Nor was Las Palomas’ closure diplomatically handled. “That girl over there, Marta,” -  a six- or seven-year-old doing her homework at one of the low tables for children - “was in the middle of filling in the form for her first ever library card when a phone call came through telling the librarians to close the doors and ask everybody to leave,” Ms González Martín says. A sit-in protest 10 weeks later at the doors of Las Palomas, to try to ensure its books and shelves stayed, concluded with police lifting away each individual demonstrator, several of them pensioners chanting pro-democracy slogans. But the books went too - in a removal van to the new library.

The library support group re-opened Las Palomas under their own steam last December - “we just walked round the corner and the door was open”, Ms Calvo says with a big grin. Improvisation and goodwill have replaced public funds, with 8,000 books donated by local families, and shelves, pot plants and furniture from nearby schools.

Emergency electricity is available, but in the shape of a cable stuck through a window and across a road into a local resident’s power supply: hardly reliable.

Even so, Las Palomas is once again regaining a central role in the Zaidín community amid the recession and 30 per cent unemployment in Andalusia.

“There are children from families who come here because at home they would never have the opportunity to read books, they don’t have the economic or cultural resources. Maybe they’re a bit more reticent at first, but they know where their shelf is, they end up taking the books home,” Ms Calvo says.

With an estimated 40 per cent of Spanish schoolchildren currently having no access to the Internet, the same used to go for the library’s computers - when there was electricity. “People’s flats here tend to be very small, so the library acted as a study room for the kids,” Ms Gonzalez Martín says.

Outside libraries, Spain’s steadily increasing reading habits have had a patchy effect at best on its bookshops: there has been an across-the-board drop of 40 per cent in sales since 2008, yet Madrid’s recent bookfair saw an unexpected 9.8 per cent increase in sales. And as demand for books rises and public funds dwindle, libraries with “mixed financing” are beginning to appear more frequently too.

In the giant dormitory town of Guadalajara, locals are now funding the library’s book budget (which had shrunk from €150,000 to zero in 2012) and in Barcelona, at the Josep Pons library, volunteers manage the day-to-day running of it.

In the hamlet of Yaiza in the Canary Islands, an internet forum debate where householders discussed what they most missed in the village concluded, 18 months later, with them organising a library with 4,500 books on its shelves.

As for the librarian volunteers in Las Palomas, their highpoints are, they say, when their institution becomes part of ordinary people’s lives again. Ms Calvo tells the story of a girl who used to sit day-in, day-out on a bench outside the library with a laptop to branch into free internet networks - given her family could not afford it at home.

“I kept on wondering why she didn’t want to come in, and finally after many months, she did, picked up a book, borrowed it. For me, after so many months, that made it all worthwhile.”