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Fears for future of library lifeline for families who cannot afford books

The National Education Union conference heard from delegates who said public libraries can be “armbands” for those struggling in society.

The National Education Union conference was told libraries are
The National Education Union conference was told libraries are "arm bands" for some parts of society (PA)

Books are becoming a luxury that many families cannot afford, teachers have heard, as they raised concerns about funding cuts on libraries.

In a debate at the National Education Union (NUT section) annual conference in Brighton, delegates raised concerns about a “shocking hammering” of library services in the last decade, warning that public libraries are often “armbands” for those in society who are struggling, and “sanity-savers” for parents who need somewhere to take their children.

One also suggested that young children are now picking up books and “swiping left”.

Jennifer Bhambri-Lyte, a delegate from North Somerset, said she had asked teacher friends for their views on libraries and received stories of “happy childhood memories, running into a library, snuggling in a corner with a book, cuddling up to mum, turning the pages, gazing at the pictures”.

She told the conference: “Kindles and iPads are wonderful things, but many of my friends talked about the smell of a book, finding tickets and receipts that someone had left as a bookmark, echoes of all the people that had been there before.

“Well, lovely, I hear you murmur, so? In a world of food banks, as my colleagues have previously talked about, books are a luxury that many families just cannot afford.

“Sharing a book brings parents together for precious moments, and I’ve taught both nursery and reception and I personally still find it disturbing to see a child pick up a book and try to swipe left.”

She also said that there are “many people out there in our society who are quite literally drowning” and that for them, “the library is a pair of armbands”.

Many a time when their children have worn them out, driven them up the wall, taking them to a library has rescued them Jennifer Bhambri-Lyte

“So when your housing benefit has been stopped, libraries have a phone you can use for free. When your landlord has put up your rent so high you can’t afford the broadband bill, a library can offer you free internet access to apply for that job, and when you simply can’t even afford to heat your own home, take your child to the library. It is warm, and you never know, you might even read a book.

“Many of my teacher friends who are parents told me their library has often been a sanity-saver, many a time when their children have worn them out, driven them up the wall, taking them to a library has rescued them. And for the homeless, a library is simply a warm place, a safe place, a refuge.”

Proposing the motion, Jonathan Reddiford, from North Somerset, argued that the number of public libraries has fallen by almost 900 in the last 10 years, with more expected to go.

“That is a shocking, shocking hammering of vital public services for many, many people,” he said.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want all children to have the opportunity to read widely, and earlier this year we announced a multi-million-pound fund to make sure pupils can master the basics of reading.”

He added that the government believes school leaders are the best people to decide how to use funds to meet their pupils’ needs, such as providing school libraries.

Press Association

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