When we think of libraries, we often think of big rooms full of shelves of books, with industrious scholars poring over dusty tomes and officious librarians wagging their fingers and shushing anyone who dares to make a noise. For the modern rural library, nothing can be further from the truth. Libraries are dynamic community centres, where people of all ages and all walks of life come together on an equal basis. And they are portals into new realms, new worlds of knowledge beyond anything we might imagined.
I grew up in a remote rural area where the town library was my window onto the world. I visited it every day after school, browsing the stacks of books and sometimes just reading the titles, and I still recall the impression this made on me. It was only a small library, and I think I must have read every book in the place; at least, it felt like I had, by the time I finished school and went on to university. But it was that little library that I first cultivated my own love of reading and writing.
Now, many of our rural libraries are threatened with closure. Has anyone stopped to ask: what will people who desire knowledge do now? It is simply not good enough to say, ‘use the Internet’. For a start, many rural communities have limited or no broadband access – and often, those communities who have no broadband are the same ones that are threatened with the loss of their nearest library. And the Internet is only one resource. It has its strengths; it also has its weaknesses. People use libraries to gather information in very different ways that then do on the Internet.
Cut people off from libraries, and you cut them off from knowledge – and this at a time when we are being told that our best chance of being competitive as a country is to increase our stocks of knowledge, become more creative and innovative, become inventors and innovators. And all the evidence we have about the ways that people learn suggests that those who learn to read early and are comfortable with books are those who learn most rapidly in later life. Give a child a computer and you will amuse him for a day. Teach a child to read and he is ready to face life.
We should be investing in libraries, not closing them. We should be turning them into true multimedia portals of knowledge that reach out and embrace our entire country. By offering people access to knowledge in ways that are meaningful to them, ways where they feel comfortable and are able to learn, we would be helping to secure the future not just of communities but of the country. Take away people’s ability to learn – I would go so far as to say, their right to learn – and what is left?
Morgen Witzel Honorary Senior Fellow
University of Exeter Business School