When I started to work in children’s libraries in Cape Town, it was a humbling experience. The aim was to give every community access to a library. And each, as standard, was well-stocked, open generous hours and there were dedicated rooms for children’s sections. I saw what the impact of having access to a safe space, a wide range of books, quiet study areas and activities was on the generations using the library. It was profound.
Imagine my disappointment when moving to the UK. Moving from a developing country where the importance of libraries was fundamental, to a first world country where they were so undermined, was a huge shock. Libraries are vital to communities and the country that doesn’t need a library service to support their people simply doesn’t exist.
For the last 13 years, I have had the privilege of working in the Western Isles. The drive to connect and support individuals and communities through libraries is especially true on islands.
Rural services face particular challenges in delivering services to their residents. The spread of communities and low population density means services are more costly, but the need for free and safe social spaces – and the connections they provide – are possibly more significant than in urban areas.
The Western Isles library service is delivered through four branches, three of which provide a dual school and public service. With many residents living more than an hour from their nearest library, the mobile service provides an essential role.
I have worked in many libraries in different countries, but the service provided here is the most personal and responsive I have experienced. The mobile library doesn’t simply stop in a central area for people to visit (most houses are spread too far apart to make that feasible) but instead visits each home. .
Libraries are often described as a lifeline and this is especially true here. Our staff have many stories to tell: that the mobile librarian may be the only person someone sees in three weeks. Once, one had to call for help on discovering a user had suffered a bad fall. The service kept people going through lockdown – simply being able to receive books at such a time was vital to many.
Unfortunately, in spite of robust research showing the importance of libraries, books and reading in combatting the negative health impacts of social isolation and loneliness and the long-term economic value in promoting literacy and learning and empowering individuals, services are constantly having to justify their existence in the face of ongoing cuts.
Not one of our four libraries is open full-time. The potential for libraries to support communities, not just through Covid recovery, but beyond, is immense, yet they need a long-term vision and commitment to ensure they reach that potential.
In the Western Isles, the challenge is to build up our branch libraries to provide an equitable service to all communities across all the islands. We must also reach out in innovative ways to create more partnership opportunities with communities. We are working to develop a small library presence in Eriskay. There is so much to be done, and so much libraries can do.
The refreshed Collective Force for Health and Wellbeing Action Plan was launched last week. The plan recognizes the vital role libraries can and do play to support people to live healthier lives in communities. Libraries also play a key role in reducing the digital divide; providing access to computers and also support and guidance for people to become digitally literate.
These are great things, which all councils should aspire to in order to create a fairer Scotland. It would be great as well, if libraries didn’t have to spend so much energy justifying their existence and rather direct all their energy into supporting our communities better.
Kathleen Milne, Libraries Manager, Western Isles Libraries, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.