Walk through the threshold of a library and, between the shelves, you’ll find something special brewing. From reading lists to guide you through hard times, to a place to feel safe and warm, libraries are stepping up for communities – and everyone is welcome
Carol Murdoch grew up in Edinburgh – not the ‘nice’ side of Edinburgh, she’s quick to note. Back then, in the 80s, it was dubbed the ‘heroin capital of Europe’, a culture that was highlighted by Irvine Welsh’s 1993 Trainspotting and is still present today, with Scotland seeing almost four-times as many drug-related deaths than the UK average. For Carol, drug use was something you found on your doorstep – but, just five minutes down the road, was its rival.
She shows me a photo of a building. It’s single-storey, sitting among grey and brown, angular tower blocks. There is a lot of concrete, and a dark sky, but the building in focus is bursting with colour, each wall, from roadside to roof, is covered in art. “Beautiful graffiti,” Carol says. “A beacon of happiness, just sitting there.” This building was Carol’s local library, and it’s where her story begins. But first, let’s jump back to the 19th century.
In 1852, something rather radical happened in Manchester, when the first public library to be set up under the provisions of the Public Libraries Act 1850 opened its doors. Using local authority funding, stocking 18,028 books (at a cost of £4,156, about £480,000 today), what was once reserved for only a small fraction of society, was suddenly available for all.
These spaces provide free education, information, support, and escapism – and their goal was to go some way towards levelling the playing field of an unlevel society. They were radical then and, in the context of today, they still are.
I’m told a story by Suffolk Libraries, about a young couple who arrived looking to apply for a disabled bus pass. While they were there, they asked about the warm rooms on offer, and two days later arrived and went straight into one. A short while later, the young man asked to speak with a member of staff, explaining their difficult situation and the young woman’s downturn in health. Their housing was precarious, and their home was freezing cold, which didn’t help the woman’s health. With the couple’s permission, the member of staff put them in touch with local councillors, and within 48 hours, warm blankets, quilts, duvet sets, and emergency food was organised for them.
“What always blows me away around my front-line colleagues is that they will come and tell me a story about what they’ve done, and they’ll just treat it like an everyday thing,” says Suffolk Libraries Deputy CEO Krystal Vittles. “I’ll stand there with my mouth open like, you do realise that’s amazing?”
What’s happening at Suffolk Libraries is the perfect example of the harmonious synergy between wellbeing support and libraries. It makes sense that these institutions, with their radical, forward-thinking history, step up for modern communities in creative ways. In Suffolk, the offerings are fruitful – everything from a dedicated health and wellbeing service to Men Can Talk sessions, a period poverty service, a menopause support project, fitness sessions, cancer support groups, and a new book collection to help people navigate bereavement, are open to all.
When asked what one of her favourite offerings is, Krystal points to a scheme called Open Space, a peer-to-peer support group attended by mental health experts. It isn’t a clinical intervention, and it may not be a replacement for other forms of support, but anyone can come along and enter the non-judgemental space to speak freely about what they are going through.
She also highlights their home library service, designed for those who want to use the library, but who can’t make it in. Volunteers go out and meet people, taking their book requests and bringing them back. Krystal explains that, while initially it may seem as though the visits are purely transaction, you find that they’re also about human connection – leading to conversations about the world around them, life, and, of course, books.
“Our mobile service is kind of similar to our home service,” Krystal continues. “You’ve got a bus coming round to the rural villages, and people are changing their books – but, actually, if you ever spend time on those buses, our mobile library bus managers come into the community, they have chats, and they know people’s names to the point where if they are a regular customer – and perhaps have some vulnerability maybe around age or health – and they don’t turn up as they usually would, they’ll give them a ring and check everything is OK. I just don’t think you can put a monetary value on that.”
But, uniquely, in a way, Suffolk Libraries actually can. In independent research by consultants Moore Kingston Smith, impact analysis of Suffolk Libraries found that services generate £41 million worth of ‘social value’ (a measurement increasingly used by businesses and local authorities to better understand impact beyond profit), estimating it to save NHS services in Suffolk around £542,000 per year.
It’s that safe space in the community, that limitless access to information, education, and support, and a place for reflection, that make libraries so successful in supporting wellbeing. Plus, as Krystal points out, they provide another important element: a sense of dignity.
“There’s a narrative around people who are experiencing poverty, whether it’s that they get looked down on, or the patronising language around them. In this country, some people treat it like a moral failing, if people haven’t got money. But in libraries, we completely reject that. Anyone who comes through our door, you are treated exactly the same, no matter what you have in your bank account or how you dress, and no matter how you present yourself. And that’s all about dignity.”
Returning to Carol, and when I put this sentiment to her, it certainly rings true.
“There is nowhere else in society where you can go and just be accepted, and not have to spend money,” she says. “My mum had four kids, there wasn’t any money to spend. But Mum could take us in there, and we could walk away with a bag of books each. It didn’t matter that they were going back to the library, you got that bag full of books, and you had pride in having that bag.”
Like a library, Carol’s story has a cyclical element. Her first job was at the National Library of Scotland, working as a cleaner, starting each morning at 4 am. Later, when she was training to become a primary school teacher, she returned to work in the library near her childhood home. Today, she is the author of Breaking into the Playground, a guide to outdoor teaching. “Going from an early morning cleaner at the National Library of Scotland, to knowing that my book is in there, and it will forever be in there, is unbelievable,” she says.
When beloved author Malorie Blackman spoke at Hay Festival back in June of this year, she echoed a lot of the same sentiments, sharing how libraries saved her life, and were the reason she became a writer. In the face of underfunding and closures, she called for libraries to be “ring fenced and protected”, adding: “I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it wasn’t for my local library.”
One way we can protect them is by making full use of them, an act that’s made all the easier by the magic that’s to be found in being surrounded by books, and by book lovers. A safe space for those who need guidance, support, or just a bit of escapism, these unique institutions are a wonder to behold. So whether you’re looking for your next good read, or for the uplifting power of a supportive community, all it takes to unlock the magic of a library is stepping over the threshold.