By Matilda Gladwell, work experience
Before the cost of living crisis, one in eight disadvantaged children across the UK did not own a single book, according to a study conducted by the National Literacy Trust. So what about now, when the country is slowly recovering from double-digit inflation and falling real incomes?
The end of last year saw the price of two major essentials, food and gas, rise dramatically. With many families feeling the squeeze of spiralling costs, how can parents be expected to afford nonessential items like books? This is further compounded by the fact that more public libraries are being forced to reduce their hours – or even close – due to a lack of funding. Since 2010, almost 780 public libraries have shut in the UK, with total funding for libraries down by nearly £20m. Between 2021 (when the cost of living crisis began) and 2022, library expenditure in Great Britain fell by 17%.
Caterham libraries have felt the effects of this. While they have been able to retain the majority of their opening hours so far, Caterham Hill Library has been forced to shut on Monday mornings, and Caterham Valley Library is now sharing its space with Barclays bank on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Joshua Burgess, who volunteers at Caterham Hill Library on Saturdays, recognises that there have been changes in the number of visitors since the cost of living crisis:
“There’s always older people,” he said. “But the library’s becoming more popular with families with young children.”
The rise in families depending upon public libraries is not just unique to Caterham; across the country, visits to public libraries have risen by 68% since the cost of living crisis, and the number of books borrowed has also increased by 58%. And yet the amount spent on public libraries by central and local governments in Great Britain this year fell by £1,988 per 1,000 people from last year, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.
But despite the current hardships faced by libraries, Joshua says that Caterham Hill Library has been doing more to accommodate families:
“Over winter we had a Warm Hub, where we made free teas and coffees for people visiting the library, especially elderly people and parents who came with their kids.
And there are now more events like these,” he said, motioning to a poster on the wall advertising free weekly Rhymetimes for toddlers and Storytime sessions for children.
The cost of living crisis has truly highlighted our need to protect our public libraries, in order to ensure children have access to books.
I asked John Ingham, author of Blood-Eagle Saga, who recently gave a talk at Caterham Valley Library, why reading plays such a key role in a child’s development:
“Reading helps open up new ideas and different worlds to [children] and stimulates their imagination in ways video-games or staring at a mobile phone cannot.
Depending on the books children choose, reading should also show them how to write in clear English… Being able to write in proper, grammatical English is a life skill.
Libraries are so important in all of this, not just for children but for adults as well,” he adds. “The Victorians realised the importance of libraries as a passport to education and self-improvement but library closures across the country show that it is a lesson we seem to have forgotten.”
Moreover, John agrees that “especially in the current cost of living crisis… access to a library is essential.”
With access to books playing such a key role in the development of children’s fluency and vocabulary, now more than ever we must secure a future for our public libraries.