It’s one of the great paradoxes of the digital age that, even as more and more resources become accessible online, demand for and use of physical public spaces keeps going up.
At the British Library more than 3,000 visitors per day come to our building at St Pancras to explore our collections, visit our exhibitions and spend time in our magnificent public areas. Rather than the rigidly enforced silence of popular cliché, the space hums with intellectual activity. You can practically feel the brain-waves of hundreds of individuals, hard at work.
From a national perspective, as we argue in the Library’s new vision statement Living Knowledge, it’s a shrewd and productive investment: in a recent economic evaluation, the Library was found to generate £5 of value for every £1 of funding it receives, yielding a net economic, social and public value of £419m for its users and UK society as a whole.
Why then are we losing so many of the equivalent spaces for some of Britain’s most deprived communities? Some 324 public libraries have closed since 2011 and further substantial cuts are proposed, affecting even such beacons of excellence as the recently-opened Library of Birmingham.
William Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England, published just before Christmas, advised that libraries do more than simply lend books – they underpin whole communities. The Report could hardly express it more clearly: “the future of libraries as community hubs is essential for the well-being of the nation”.
More than a third of us use our local library, and this figure increases to more than half in poorer communities – no wonder such communities are so passionate in defending this vital service.
Just as we have seen at the British Library, the growth of digital research and e-lending has not changed the fact that people value safe and welcoming places where they can access information and knowledge of all kinds.
Some 20 per cent of households remain without a digital connection, so in many areas libraries offer the only way that otherwise excluded members of the community are able to get online.
Accordingly, one of the key recommendations of the Sieghart Report was that central government should provide funding to ensure that all public libraries provide free Wifi – currently, more than a third do not. This is not a “nice to have” – it’s a basic and essential amenity in the digital age – it’s also the way to attract a new generation of users
We’ve had free wifi across the British Library’s site at St Pancras for many years now and, especially in the past 18 months, we’ve seen a transformation in the way that people use our public areas. These days the Library is abuzz with thousands of users every day – sometimes full to capacity – as people engage in every intellectual pursuit imaginable.
There are no easy answers for local authorities struggling to make best use of their shrinking budgets, and it takes courage to commit to libraries alongside so many other demands. But what’s at stake here is a vast and vital part of the infrastructure the UK needs to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.
If we fatally weaken the UK’s precious network of libraries, big and small, we risk losing a whole generation of future readers and learners – exactly those creative and curious-minded people, of all backgrounds, on whom our future prosperity depends.Reuse content