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The Loss of Public Libraries Exposes the Value of Culture

“Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses.”


So argued American poet James Oppenheim in 1911. Exposing a false dichotomy between the ‘heart’ and the ‘body’, Bread and Roses’ attempted to provide a concise answer to the eternal question of the value of culture. His demand for both bread and roses — sustenance for both body and soul — is something we might consider rational in the brutal landscape of early 20th-century America.


One hundred years later, his argument might be considered incontrovertible. Modern societies, with advanced democracies and healthy economies, should not be forced to choose between bread and roses. Arts and cultural services are recognised to hold an innate value that enrich lives in countless ways.


However, after decades of austerity, local councils are being forced to cut the roses, if they wish to continue to feed their people. After declaring itself effectively bankrupt in September, Birmingham’s city council proposed last month to withdraw all funding from a range of government-funded arts organisations. In January, Suffolk County Council announced plans to cut 100 per cent of their arts budget. In Hampshire, a public consultation is currently asking residents to literally choose between bread and roses: between homelessness support services and museums; working highways and provisions for the arts; adult social care and library books.


To me, the most horrifying consequence of these cuts is the closure of public libraries. 25 of Birmingham’s 35 libraries are now at risk of closing. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, 764 local libraries have closed across the UK. Hundreds more are reducing their opening hours, closing services, switching out full-time staff for volunteers, and declaring they cannot buy any more books.


It is heartbreaking in the sense that libraries are great cultural institutions, markers of democracy where information is gifted indiscriminately to all those who seek it. All are welcome, and everything within is freely given. One only needs to look at the burning of the libraries of Alexandria, Nalanda, or Duchess Anna Amalia to be able to understand the great power of libraries and the knowledge they contain.


This is perhaps self-evident to those of us who spend more hours in the main library than we’d care to, at great personal expense. To be a student is to indulge in the luxury of knowledge-seeking for the sake of personal betterment. In this sense, public libraries are — as former Labour minister Chris Smith argued — “street corner universities”. At one point ubiquitous to every town across the UK, they are the most accessible cultural venues in the world.


Yet modern libraries are far more than keepers of culture. They form the hearts of communities. There are no other places where anyone can gain knowledge, advice, internet access, socialisation, or simply a warm, safe, space to be: completely free of both charge and judgement. Libraries are where children learn to read, where refugees apply for jobs and visas, where the elderly become digitally literate, and where the homeless might receive a vital moment of warm respite. As a youth worker, I’ve witnessed children physically transform upon entering a children’s library: a place where they have unlimited access to books, on whatever they are interested in, perhaps for the first time. I’ve also witnessed their parents use the library’s free internet access — something else they might not have regular access to — to apply for work or support.


Libraries provide space for people to breathe. They give freely the fundamental tools people need to find stability. In so doing, they power the basic functioning and development of healthy societies. They expose the false alternatives to arts and culture funding, by illustrating how cultural venues have the capacity to enhance social wellbeing and economic stability.


Indeed, a study by the University of East Anglia last year found that English libraries generate at least £3.4 billion in value each year: by supporting literacy, health, and digital inclusion. An individual library’s services are worth roughly £1 million each year: a value as great as six times their running costs. To invest in a public library is to invest in the long-term development of a community.


Libraries thus exemplify Oppenheim’s argument that the bread and the roses are intrinsically linked. They expose the great value of cultural access: they deserve to be protected.

Illustration by Emma Vera Rapp

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