Libraries and the sense of place

The Westbury Horse by Henry Burrows
The Westbury Horse by Henry Burrows

With National Libraries Day and the Speak Up For Libraries parliamentary lobbying day upon us again, I’ve been thinking about a
little-recognised aspect of public libraries and what they do for us, in housing resources that contribute to our sense of place.

Google ‘library’ and ‘local studies’ or ‘local history’, and you’re likely to find references to caches of archives, records, photos about the place you’re interested in. If you’re lucky, you may find there’s also a professional to help you navigate your way through obscure documents and yearbooks in the form of a local studies librarian. Libraries, as campaigners are pointing out, are about staff as well as buildings and books.

I’ve called on that kind of help myself in Crystal Palace, as I sought to find out more about the ancestors who, I discovered after moving to the area, had lived in the surrounding streets. In his last few weeks before his redundancy from Upper Norwood Joint Library, local history librarian Jerry Green directed me to the materials that contained photos of the church where my great-grandparents got married and other details of the lives of my local forebears. Not being a trained historian or archivist, I’m grateful he was around: there’s no way I would have been able to do that alone.

Now Upper Norwood Library faces an uncertain future when all its council-funded staff lose their jobs in April. The local history society may step in a provide some help in training people how to research local and family history. But, like all grant-funded projects, it is likely to be short-term.

It’s also thanks to a local studies librarian that I’m getting to know my new home of Wiltshire. This week, county local studies librarian Mike Marshman gave a well-attended talk in Bradford on Avon Library on the white horses and other hill figures for which Wiltshire is so well-known. I learnt that the white horse I can see from my road is the Westbury horse, cut in 1778 and possibly replacing an older horse looking the other way, and that the better-known new Pewsey horse was cut by the fire brigade in 1937. The Devizes Millennium White Horse, cut in 1999, gets his own birthday parties, complete with cake.

Other, more established, residents were learning things too. ‘You need to get out more in Wiltshire’, Marshman told us sweetly when we failed to have heard of a horse.

Topographical trivia? I don’t think so. Cumulatively, collectively, this is the stuff that binds people to place and helps us to know and love the settlements and landscapes that hold us. Local libraries – the clue’s in the word ‘local’ – have, in their hundred-and-fifty-year history, have played a vital role in doing this. My great-great grandfather saw this when he campaigned in the century before last for a publicly-funded library in the heart of every community; the 1964 Public Libraries Act placed an obligation on councils to provide all residents with access to a public library.

It’s disappointing – no, it’s tragic – that central government, with its recent guidance that the statutory obligation on councils to provide a public library can be interpreted in the loosest terms, replacing proximity to a library with access via digital technologies. For libraries are not just there to promote reading, education, culture and community – they are also about our relationship to place.