In defence of public libraries

Save our libraries - a meeting to stop the closure of the York Gardens Library in the heart of a deprived part of Wandsworth

The mass closure of public libraries in some areas of Britain will damage most sorts of learning – but the worst hit will be the sort of learning that people do because they want to do it, not because they need it for their career.

These are the same people who are being hit by the decline of adult education, and the increasing marginalisation of all adult education which is not designed to equip you for work. Publicly funded adult education has in recent years suffered from both lack of money, and the increasingly common view that adult learning should be directed primarily towards training. Even the writers of the report on the admirable European LARA Project A Response to Ageing admit, ‘There is no consistency in funding mechanisms for formal and non-formal adult education. This inevitably leads to the prioritising of work likely to generate income’.

Learning for pleasure, for personal development, is in danger of extinction. In particular, a growing number of older people find themselves priced out of education. Yet a great many older people want to continue learning, for a variety of reasons. Some of them may wish to return to employment, but many do not. It’s for the second category that the University of the Third Age was founded 29 years ago. U3A is a place where people who no longer do paid work full time are learning, not to earn qualifications, or certificates, but for the pleasure it gives them.

And many of these rely on a nearby library, or a mobile library, that will not be there next year. Many U3A interest groups depend on local libraries for research materials, and more than 30 U3As have told us that they are involved in campaigns to save their local libraries. Though its members need no direct help, they do require a certain level of infrastructure, and chief among that is a proper public library service.  For many U3A groups, the library is the first port of call for learning materials.

The present round of deep cuts is hitting an already damaged library service. Local authorities under pressure have been cutting their libraries for years. You can see why libraries become a target in straitened times. They look like a soft target. Library cuts won’t make hospital waiting lists longer, nor deprive children of an education.

Or won’t they?

In some parts of the country, at exam time, students and schoolchildren have to get to the library well before it opens and queue if they want a desk. Children are turned away every day because there is no room. As to health, we know that learning in your third age is good for both the brain and the body, helping to stave off the fourth age of dependence. And library cuts make third age learning much harder. The humble public library may be one of those things that we don’t value enough until we wake up and find we haven’t got it any more.

So libraries will be missed by all sections of the population, but especially by older, retired people, many of whom want to read and study all the things they have not had time for before. That older people have an appetite for learning new things is now beyond doubt.  The University of the Third Age has grown every year of its 29 years, and now has more than 270,000+ members in more than 800 local U3As.

Here’s an example of the sort of second chance education for which we’re best known, and which will be damaged by library closures and by the increasing emphasis on vocational learning.

Estelle Bullough wanted to go to university when she was young, and study languages. But her mother died when she was 15, and the family circumstances didn’t allow it – she left school at 17. She worked in a bank, then part time in a clothing retail company after having children. Then at last, nearly forty years later, she took up languages again, through the U3A.

She joined Bradford U3A, and it’s been part of her life for 20 years. In that time she has shown the real talent for languages which she always knew she had, learning German, French, Spanish and Italian. She also became the secretary of the Bradford U3A, and started learning in two other groups there – philosophy, and gardening. She has travelled a lot, so that she can use her languages.

For a while, in the 1990s, the U3A nationally had a network of translators and interpreters who gave their services to non-profit making bodies, which was in a position to offer more than 100 linguists covering 26 languages. Estelle was one of its first recruits. One of her jobs was to translate material about the British U3A into German, for use by groups of older people in Germany.

For the same reasons as Estelle, my father would have loved the U3A, if it had existed in his day. He was born in 1899 and left school at 14, working at a series of low-paid jobs, including that of carter, a mine worker above ground, a labourer, an unskilled fitter who looked after a large diesel engine at a local lime kilns and chalk pit in Sussex, and he finished as a saw doctor.

He was a Methodist lay preacher for 25 years. He took a lively interest in the local primary school of which he was a governor, and he served on the parish council. He was also a staunch trade unionist. He was entirely self-taught and, in later years, I realized he was a very intelligent man.
He died recognised only by his few Methodist friends. His workmates and the other inhabitants of the village where he lived viewed him as a bit strange. There was something in him which made him search for knowledge and read a great deal.

These are the sort of people we exist for. And people like that require a freewheeling but democratic organisation, which they control and from which they can take whatever they wish. They don’t want a third age organisation controlled by well-meaning second agers, and the U3A and the National Pensioners Convention are the only two older people’s organisations in the country which are run in that democratic way: by third agers, for third agers. I’m the elected national chair, and I’m responsible to a 20-strong national executive and an Annual General Meeting of representatives from U3As throughout the land. The U3A has never seen any reason why the principle of democratic accountability should cease to apply when you retire.

The U3A doesn’t have a political view. We don’t see it as our job to allocate blame for the economic crisis, or to prescribe economic solutions. But we do see it as our duty to speak out against proposals which will damage second chance learning and third age learning. Decimating the public library service is as clear an example of such a proposal as I can think of.

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