When I lived in Syria and told people I was a librarian, some people were confused. Universities in Syria have libraries, of course, and there is a large national library, but there is no extensive system of public libraries and many people are unfamiliar with libraries or librarians. With the exception of an initiative by the Syria Trust for Development, libraries are viewed mainly as the domain of the elite.
I’m used to be confusion or disbelief when I tell people I am a librarian, so that reaction did not surprise me. What I did find surprising, however, was the reaction from people who admired the North American and British public library systems. I met a man who had travelled in Canada, and he spoke with great admiration for the public library system there. He said the libraries were one of the most striking aspect of his visit to Canada; he couldn’t believe that anyone could just go to a library and borrow books for free! He told me that he was an avid book collector and ran a small lending library of sorts out of his own home, but he expressed regret that his country did not offer anything like it for their citizens.
At the gym where I went most days to work off my falafel weight gain, I met a young cleaner from the Philippines. Despite working 50+ hours per week, she was trying to teach herself English in her spare time. One day, she asked me if I had any old English books she could have. I scoured my bookshelves looking for appropriate books and magazines that I could give her, and even picked up a Jenny Valentine young adult novel at a local book shop. I was moved by her desire to educate herself, and only wished I could do more to help young women like her.
It’s experiences like these that make me so angry about what is happening to public libraries in the United States and particularly the United Kingdom. Although I am not a public librarian, I have always supported their mission. In fact, it is the ideals of social justice and universal access to information that attracted me to librarianship in the first place. With public library systems that are the envy of the world, I can’t understand why the US and UK would just throw their libraries away.
Yes, I understand that the world has changed considerably since the 1964 Public Libraries Act, but so have libraries! I also understand that with the global economic crisis we cannot afford to overspend and overconsume as we have been in recent years. However, I also understand that essential public services such as education, including the informal education that comes from public libraries, are necessary for economic growth. If I find myself running out of money, then I need to cut back on the nights out and shoe shopping, but the global economy does not work like that. Investment in public services is necessary for economic growth, and retaining properly staffed public and school libraries is vital.
The Syrian population has its own worries at the moment, so I doubt many of the friends and acquaintances I made there are paying much attention to our public service concerns. Nevertheless, I am certain that many of the people who admire our enlightened public library systems would be shocked and saddened to hear of the demise of so many library services.