21/8/22 (Open the Libraries. Properly. Now.)

Hey readers,
Today’s post is a letter I’ve just sent via email. I’m very angry, so as always, feel free to share, especially if you’ve ever been saved by a library. I’m going to post this on social media and then go do some tidying and drink some coffee.

Dear Bill White, Chairperson, Live Borders (I’d also address this to the CEO, however that person’s details aren’t currently on the Live Borders website.)

CC: John Lamont MP, Rachael Hamilton MSP

I’d like to begin this letter with a quote, from Jasper Fforde’s 2020 book, The Constant Rabbit. I’ve just finished reading the first few chapters, I’m enjoying it. The hardback copy in my hands is not a library book, it came to me via a charity shop.

“The… Government’s much-vaunted Rural Library Strategic Group Vision Action Group had kept libraries open as per their election manifesto, but reduced the librarian staffing levels in Herefordshire to a single, solitary example working on greatly reduced hours – which meant that each of the county’s twelve libraries could be open for precisely six minutes every two weeks.”

The Constant Rabbit, believe it or not, is a work of fiction. Like his series of Thursday Next books, this is set in a kind of parallel Britain where surreal fantasy aligns poetically and hilariously with our own real-life absurdities.

Absurdities like when, on Friday night (the 19th), planning my Saturday, I decided that to save some fuel and an hour’s driving, I would attend my local Live Borders leisure centre for a regular (excellent btw) class, and then spend the morning at the library, before going to work in the afternoon. Not one to assume the exact time the library would shut on a Saturday (around lunchtime, right? Seems sensible…), I checked online.

To my actual dismay, I learned that Live Borders apparently thinks it’s acceptable to not open the Hawick or Galashiels libraries at any time on a weekend. WTAF? I’ve since had a look on your website, and only Peebles is open every Saturday. The rest of the libraries are variously worse off, with one only open one day in a week. It also seems that one single hour, on one day a week is the sole chance for those who are busy 9-5 to gain access to Hawick, Galashiels, Duns, Innerleithen or Kelso libraries. The other seven libraries never open as late as 6pm. I’m posting a summary of the borders-wide hours on my blog, to accompany the publication of this letter, as it’s impossible to see all of the times in one place and truly understand the shockingly miniscule number of the libraries’ open hours.

I don’t even work 9-5 hours, so I guess it was sheer luck that my last two visits to Hawick library were actually successful.

I’m interested in local history, and quite specific local history, which requires access to reference only (not available for loan outside of the library building) materials written by local historians and printed in limited single runs. The two staff in on these fortuitous days were helpful and friendly and interested. They opened up the map case so I could look up a local spot I’m trying to learn more about, and also ventured to the basement for a rare copy of a book I’d been seeking. It’s not available anywhere, this book. Online, it’s listed but out of stock. I wrote to the author, who called me back, explaining that she has no more copies, and suggested I ask one or two locals who might be willing to let me borrow theirs. The only really reliable way of reading this book is at the library, which is barely open 4 days a week.

Do I have to explain to you how vital libraries are to everyone in our society? Do I really? Because I shouldn’t. I refuse to, but I think I might end up doing it anyway, because the insufficient hours are indicating you don’t understand that they’re so important.

I might stretch to suggesting you read some memoirs by writers, where you might find out that, like myself, they are some of many, many children who found refuge in their local or school libraries. They found purpose, friendship, support and solidarity – not just in books but in the people there. I for one, strongly attribute my very survival of Hawick High School to the safe space that was the library, to the two librarians that served during my time there, and my fellow students that found it the only sensible, safe place to be, outside of classrooms.

I might mention in here too, that in 2016-17 I worked in the Galashiels and Selkirk libraries (albeit not on Saturdays), and it was one of the most socially rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. The relationships that grew between patrons and staff, just over my short time and short hours are ones I still think about years later; the old married couple who borrow matching and opposite sets of westerns and mills and boon novels, the young mothers reading aloud to their babies, the silent lone teenager scanning the fantasy shelves, the woman who arrives with two bags for life stuffed full to replace again with the maximum number of loans, every three weeks like clockwork. It’s actually really nice to reminisce about that job. I was sad when I left for another job. I hope my regulars are getting on okay.

Anyway, so I know there’s this thing called Covid-19, and that meant things had to close for a while, and procedures had to change, but it’s now August, 2022, and I’m fairly certain, that above some sensible recommendations on mask-wearing and hand-washing, there’s nothing stopping the libraries being open for a reasonable (you know, like six days a week, and at least a couple of evenings) set of hours. Apart from, I suppose, your decisions.

Your decisions, which especially during this cost-of-living crisis, will massively impact the lives of library users and folk that don’t use the libraries yet, increasingly through the coming winter.

The price on the inside cover of The Constant Rabbit is £20. That’s not unreasonable, for a new hardback; but it’s also more than two hours of my (and a lot of other folks) wages. I’m glad it was available for less in a charity shop, and passed on to me for free, and glad that once I’m finished with it, I can gift it, or donate it, whichever works. I’d donate it to the libraries, but I might not manage to get there while one’s open to do so, and well, if they’re barely open, what’s the point?

Libraries are needed, as all the things I’ve mentioned here and plenty of others, and now I think about it, as a warm place this winter too. We’re at a level of energy-and-food-and-everything-costs where Borders folk not only need food banks to eat and libraries to entertain and inform, but will soon need warm-banks, too. Shouldn’t the libraries have their doors open?

I’d better start to write a close to this letter, and it’s an ultimatum that doesn’t work – keep the libraries to limited hours, and I’ll go half as much as I want to, I’ll spend more of my limited budget on books, and far, far worse: others will lose a sanctuary they might never even know existed. We as a nation will lose the next generation of children reared by books (seriously read some writers’ memoirs), we’ll lose people literally and financially and academically and imaginatively and we’ll leave them out in the cold, with nothing to read.

Open the Libraries. Properly. Now.

Yours,

Jessie Growden

(Library card number 2414400118****)

Live Borders (Scottish Borders) library opening times, as of 21/8/22:

LibraryOpening timesActual number of hours open per week
EarlstonFriday 1400 – 17003
EyemouthMonday 1000-1300, 1400-1700 Thursday 1000-1300 Friday 1000-1300, 1400-170015
GalashielsMonday 0930-1700 Tuesday 0930-1800 Wednesday 0930-1600 Friday 0930-170030
HawickMonday 0930-1700 Tuesday 0930-1800 Thursday 0930-1700 Feiday 0930-160030
MelroseTuesday 1000-1300 Thursday 1400-17006
PeeblesMonday 1000-1500 Tuesday 1000-1500 Thursday 1000-1700 Friday 1000-1500 Saturday 1000-150027
SelkirkTuesday 1400-1700 Thursday 1000-13006
ColdstreamTuesday 1400-1600 Thursday 1400-16008
DunsMonday 1230-1700 Tuesday 1230-1800 Thursday 0930-1230 Friday 1000-1500 Saturday (every other… ish) 0900-120019.5
InnerleithenTuesday 1200-1800 Thursday 1100-170012
JedburghFriday 1400-1700 Saturday 0900-12006
KelsoMonday 1000-1600 Tuesday 1230-1800 Thursday 0930-1230 Friday 1130-1600 Saturday (every other… ish) 0900 – 120019.5

For some massive inevitable disappointment, you can check the opening times of your nearest Live Borders library here. 

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