August column: Local Libraries

Jo Cox writes a column every month for the Dewsbury Press. This is the column for August, published today.

The British writer Neil Gaiman is known for saying very nice things about libraries and librarians and their value and awesomeness. He sees them as “frontline soldiers in the war against illiteracy and the lack of imagination” and the “thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.”

He also said something about rule number one being not to mess with libraries… although he used far more colourful language than I would dare in a family newspaper!

As a kid growing up in Heckmondwike the library on Walkley Lane was a regular haunt on rainy Saturday mornings or after school. I remember marvelling at the rows and rows of books and will never forget the librarian Florence Smith. Her enthusiasm and her knowledge. But also her creativity and ideas – there was always something going on to draw parents and particularly children into the library. Now, with my own children, I have spent countless hours in libraries – not to mention Sure Start Children’s Centres and can think of nothing better than snuggling up with a good book and two captivated little ones.

The Birstall actress Tracy Brabin is very clear that Batley Library was a lifeline for her and where she revised for her exams. They are a lifeline for job hunters without their own computer, slimmers, walkers, discussers, knitters and natterers.

We are blessed with some beautiful libraries. Cleckheaton and Batley are magnificent. Heckmondwike is what I measure all libraries by. And Birstall is a glorious, thriving community hub.

Where else would you find such a treasure trove of the pink-spined Mills and Boons romance novels, which remain extremely popular? And this year is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. I was in Birstall library earlier this month – the decorations, activities – and a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – were awaiting any child who was curiouser and curiouser.

Our libraries are so much more than just a repository for books. They are home to librarians! Some of our most precious public servants.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one,” says Gaiman.

I was approached in one library by a woman desperate that it remain open. She’d been an avid reader but lost much of her sight. As a result she stopped reading altogether. She even lost the ability to hold a book in the right way.

It was the librarians who reignited her interest in reading, taught her how to read in spite of her sight issue and helped her learn how to hold a book. Without the time and dedication and the compassion of a librarian she dreaded to think where she would now be.

I don’t envy Kirklees councillors the decisions and responsibilities the government have lumbered them with. The Tories have been very clever in devolving their cuts to councils. As well as the responsibility local councillors are also taking the blame. Quite wrongly.

I just hope something can be done to save our wonderful libraries before they vanish down a rabbit hole.

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