‘If there’s nowhere else to go, this is where they come’
June 26, 2024 5:24 AM   Subscribe

Guardian: The average public library is not only a provider of the latest Anne Enright or Julia Donaldson: it is now an informal citizens advice bureau, a business development centre, a community centre and a mental health provider. It is an unofficial Sure Start centre, a homelessness shelter, a literacy and foreign language-learning centre, a calm space where tutors can help struggling kids, an asylum support provider, a citizenship and driving theory test centre, and a place to sit still all day and stare at the wall, if that is what you need to do, without anyone expecting you to buy anything.
posted by Wordshore (30 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel like "left by a state that has reneged on its responsibilities" is an important phrase here.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:30 AM on June 26 [29 favorites]


I feel like "left by a state that has reneged on its responsibilities" is an important phrase here.

Yes; the whole long article gives glimpses into realities of this fucked-up country, and these three paragraphs amplify that:

"They also sense when things have gone awry. The home service – two full-time staff who deliver and collect books from those who can’t easily leave home – notice if someone seemed unwell, or a house too cold. Curran has sat next to people at a screen – usually men – who have said to him, “I don’t feel like being here anymore.” He would give them a number for social services, but they were usually reluctant to call. “You just know, don’t you, that look of depression” – his hands mimed blankness across his face. The other day, he said, he got chatting to someone whose electricity meter had run out. “They were just sitting in the dark eating cold beans for a couple of weeks until they got paid.” On another occasion, Curran was standing with an asylum-seeker at the printer, and what came out, as evidence requested by the authorities, was a picture of the man’s face smashed in.

On an average day, Giles and Curran spend nearly as much time setting people up on computers, helping them navigate these computers, helping them print, then using an old-fashioned ping-and-clang cash register to charge them for printing, as they do issuing books. Some users are not confident with the technology, but for others, there is a deeper problem. “Semi-literacy is a thing around here,” said Curran, “which you realise when you help with a computer. Obviously they don’t want to say, but a lot of the time it will be that they just can’t navigate.”

Library assistants aren’t required to help, but “the thing is they’re obviously struggling”, said Giles, so she and Curran almost always do. Much of the help required is urgent – job applications, benefits forms, case letters. “I mean, the amount of times I’ve had to go through forms with people, trying to quickly understand their C100 [for child custody arrangements] or any form like that,” said Curran. Universal credit comes up again and again. “Even I find that stressful,” Curran told me. Sometimes he wonders whether the government is deliberately making it difficult, “just to weed people out”."
posted by Wordshore at 5:38 AM on June 26 [11 favorites]


Mod note: Couple of comments removed. The article is about the UK and what's going on there, so be sensitive to context and American centric views of this thread, thanks.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 6:04 AM on June 26 [14 favorites]


Libraries are an indicator species, in a way. As an ugly American, one of the first hints I got that things were getting really bad in the UK was library closures and "we can run libraries off volunteers, how hard can it be?"

That was more than a decade ago.
posted by humbug at 6:15 AM on June 26 [19 favorites]


a kind of socialist romanticism about public libraries drew me into librarianship as a career, but now these stories depress me. a library only needs to function as a multipurpose social services hub in a failing society, where the network of services have been squeezed to edges. the article points this out, but it’s also imbued with a martyrish humble brag about workers helping so far beyond the scope of traditional library services. there is value also in a library as a place for julia donaldson or lee child books.

i’ll be thinking about this on my commute in to my library job today. thanks for the share, Wordshore.
posted by tamarack at 6:18 AM on June 26 [20 favorites]


“I remember getting told to smile: ‘You might be the only person they’ve seen all day.’”

I was told the same thing when I worked in a library. At the time it pissed me off -- I was a young woman and really didn't need yet another person telling me to smile. But now I'm old and still work with the public, frequently including people who are isolated one way or another, and I've taken it to heart. (I was right then, and I'm right now.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:22 AM on June 26 [26 favorites]


providing essential services is key to establishing a functional revolutionary government. the other big element is possession of enough military strength to fend off the inevitable attack by the forces of reaction.

am I saying that libraries should have a well-trained, well-armed military wing? am i proposing that we transfer all power to the librarians?

yes. that is what i’m saying.

this has been etc. etc.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 6:36 AM on June 26 [28 favorites]


I don't want to pull the focus to the US, but it is striking to me that in both places, the same resource -- public libraries -- has stepped into the void of social services left yawning by the reduction of state-provided services and the increase in general need & trauma.

Presumably a century ago it would have been local churches, but now they are less central to civic life than they were. Back then, the vicar at least had the prospect of going to heaven for his efforts, whereas now librarians just get a (too low!) salary.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:48 AM on June 26 [12 favorites]


yes. that is what i’m saying.

I recognize that this is a bombastic lowercase pronouncement, but I absolutely believe that for a functioning democracy, a literate population supported by robust public services that recognizes libraries as critical infrastructure is, without a hint of exaggeration, a national security issue.
posted by mhoye at 6:49 AM on June 26 [30 favorites]


Somehow the manager is always a guy even when most of the staff are women...

(I really don't want to take away from the article, it was lovely. He sounds hardworking, but it also sounds like the grandmother who's been there longer but maybe can't work as many hours does a lot of the actual organizing and running of things.)
posted by subdee at 6:49 AM on June 26 [7 favorites]


it also sounds like the grandmother who's been there longer but maybe can't work as many hours does a lot of the actual organizing and running of things

As it ever was. A true boss never does their own work.
posted by Dysk at 7:24 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


People who have prepaid power meters which unceremoniously turn the electricity off when their balance is exhausted aren't living in a functional democracy.

(I had to be careful how I phrased that so as not to inadvertently imply that places without prepaid power meters are functional democracies. There are sadly lots of ways to not be a functional democracy)
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:25 AM on June 26 [11 favorites]


As it ever was. A true boss never does their own work.

Eh, if you’re a competent public library director, a lot of your time is spent ensuring that the right people stay in the mood to not cut your budget. There’s a constant treadmill to keep your people employed, programs running, and disasters averted. There are obviously wastes of skin as well, but most spend their time doing stupid but necessary things.

One of the problems with the “library as social services hub” is that librarians, library assistants, etc generally don’t take the jobs or even get trained to do that work. And it’s not the city that pays the cost of that lack of preparation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:34 AM on June 26 [13 favorites]


> libraries as critical infrastructure is, without a hint of exaggeration, a national security issue.

yes exactly libraries must become powerful enough to threaten the security of the bourgeois nation-states
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 8:10 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


So you support the legacy of Andrew Carnegie? Nice anarchosyndicalism there, comrade shitposter.
posted by ambrosen at 8:31 AM on June 26


> bombastic lowercase pronouncements, can't you see? they already do! that's why reactionary forces are attacking them [ibid]! it's about more than nation-states though:
"In order to understand the actions of politicians, we have to understand the political and economic contexts within which they operate. Currently, we are living in a historical period defined by neoliberalism, an ideology whose beginnings are most often attributed to the administrations of Ronald Reagan (U.S.) and Margaret Thatcher (U.K.)" [The Fight for Public Library Funding: Demonstrate Value or Demonstrate in the Streets? by Stavroula Harissis, pdf: Progressive Librarians Guild]

Wordshore, thank you for this post
posted by HearHere at 8:40 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves
Vocational awe describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique. I argue that the concept of vocational awe directly correlates to problems within librarianship like burnout and low salary. This article aims to describe the phenomenon and its effects on library philosophies and practices so that they may be recognized and deconstructed.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 8:57 AM on June 26 [14 favorites]



So you support the legacy of Andrew Carnegie? Nice anarchosyndicalism there, comrade shitposter.


I work in a large library system established by Carnegie (shhhhh nobody dox me) and I assure you that everyone's feelings about that dude from the staff side are complex and not overly worshipful.

On the one hand, I am incredibly proud of the services the library provides. I work in a satellite branch in a low-income neighborhood, and the library is:

- The only nearby place for basic clerical services like printing/emailing/obtaining government forms

- A crucial warming and cooling shelter for unhoused people and those without utilities

- An important safe space for neighborhood kids without childcare, especially LGBTQ+ kids

- Somewhere people come for first aid or when they need someone to call them an ambulance

- The location of the only public bathroom and baby changing station in the area

- A place that hosts free community events like food banks and toy giveaways

I really like our patrons and I'm happy to help them with these things as much as I can. And... every single one of those things points to a crucial failure brought on by capitalism. Why doesn't our neighborhood have one lousy copy shop any more, or anywhere affordable and pleasant to hang out? Why isn't there a homeless shelter? Why are utility bills so outrageous and why can't people get help with them? Why can't people afford childcare, or to go to a clinic?
It's essentially a whole other set of tasks (and let's be real, emotional labor tasks) handed off to people who already have a full range of official tasks and generally aren't paid all that well, especially if they're library staff who don't have their MLIS.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 9:32 AM on June 26 [37 favorites]


Amen, Nibbly Fang.

It would be one thing if libraries were a "third space" like going down to the pub or a park -- but they have become providers of core social services!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:56 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]


So you support the legacy of Andrew Carnegie?

While Carnegie funded the construction of a bunch of library buildings in the US in an era where libraries were less comprehensive in the services they provide (think of the stereotype of the stern librarian shushing noisy patrons), literacy was a little less universal, but there were some half-well-intentioned/half-horrible eugenicist or racist ideas around uplifting people deemed lesser somehow through exposure to upper class white European culture, in an effort to buy himself a more positive public image (think modern-day corporate greenwashing, pink washing, pride merchandising, etc.), public libraries pre-dated Carnegie, and his philanthropic legacy isn’t quite so relevant to the UK, which is the setting of the fpp.
posted by eviemath at 10:21 AM on June 26 [8 favorites]


(I.e., “but Carnegie” is about on par with thinking that participating in society in ways essential for survival is somehow a gotcha for anyone critiquing fundamental organizational aspects of that society.)
posted by eviemath at 10:24 AM on June 26 [10 favorites]


The article mentioned that the Battle branch of the Reading library is a Carnegie library. I too was surprised by that, not realizing that he had endowed libraries outside of the US.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:25 AM on June 26 [7 favorites]


Huh, I stand corrected!
posted by eviemath at 10:42 AM on June 26


Yep, there are Carnegie libraries elsewhere. He was Scottish after all. Wikipedia has a list (at the bottom, here's the list for Europe). The UK situation is definitely a different one from the US. They have a lot of libraries which have out and out closed down as the article states. Many others have only volunteers staffing them which, no shade to volunteers at all, makes it a different sort of institution relative to the community in some ways. They can do the work which is described as "slow librarianship" in the article, "the process of coming to understand a specific community, and catering to it specifically."

I was interested to read about how the government visa processing little sub-unit was the key to getting some libraries stabilized. That was a lovely little article, thanks for sharing it.
posted by jessamyn at 12:09 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


When I was living out of my car, I the local library was where I went to convince myself that my life still had purpose. I wasn’t the only person, either.
posted by JustSayNoDawg at 12:24 PM on June 26 [14 favorites]


I don't want to pull the focus to the US, but it is striking to me that in both places, the same resource -- public libraries -- has stepped into the void of social services left yawning by the reduction of state-provided services and the increase in general need & trauma.

It's also happening in Canada, at least in Toronto. Libraries are just about the only place where you can sit inside for a while without buying anything. Children, teens, elderly people, street-involved people - everyone who just needs a place to go - end up at the library. We have some great drop-ins for kids 5 and under, but most are closed by 2pm. The library is the only indoor place you can take your kid after you get off work - and indoors is important in Canada in the winter.

The other day, I also realized that libraries are just about the only public washrooms in the city (other than a few parks) - and they are usually accessible, too. I was looking for one and the two libraries I checked were both having a later opening than usual.

This isn't to pull focus from the UK, but just noting that the loss of both social services and true 3rd places is hitting many places in the world.
posted by jb at 1:27 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


Frick/Carnegie may be a pairing particular to the US, so Frick's [eriehistory:] "Meet you in Hell" has less resonance elsewhere?
posted by HearHere at 3:38 PM on June 26


I seriously doubt I could survive car life without libraries. It's not illegal to be homeless, but man, there sure are a lot of laws targeting homeless style behavior, even in paid camping situations. It shouldn't, but it still astonishes me how much governments/politicians are willing to have blood on their hands in pursuit of... A couple of dollars, bigoted acclaim, or just.... not my problem nihilism.
posted by Jacen at 4:00 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


jessamyn: ...how the government visa processing little sub-unit was the key to getting some libraries stabilized...

I won't quote specific numbers, but the loss of revenue from going "no fines" in my town was somewhat offset by becoming the town's passport processing location. Plus it's another vital service for patrons, available in one place!
posted by wenestvedt at 5:35 PM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Mod note: [Thanks, Wordshore; this post has been shelved on the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:47 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]


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