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Opinion

Libraries are not just for books – they can help in heatwaves too

Libraries have become known as a haven for people looking to escape the cold, now they can do the same in heatwaves, writes librarian Ian Anstice.

The library is a place people know and trust.

People are less likely to use a new facility that’s unfamiliar to them. A ‘warm bank’? A ‘cool space’? What are they? But a library? Everyone knows a library and they know they won’t be turned away or looked down on there.

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That is important this week when record high temperatures are almost certainly being recorded. In hot weather, the most likely to suffer ill effects are the old. That is, those most likely not to have air conditioning.

There’s a movement, most notably in the USA and even Canada, to highlight libraries as the place to go. Sadly, in this country, there’s not many libraries that have aircon but those who do are popular. After all, one can only hang around the freezer section of the supermarket so long before security moves in, but no-one bats an eyelid in the reference section. But one does not need such expensive measures. Some libraries – such as those signed up to the London ‘Cool Spaces’ scheme – just provide shade and free water. And, let’s face it, it’s not many libraries that would refuse a request for water anyway.

Let’s flip it a bit. The money-saving expert Martin Lewis recently tweeted about the need for “warm banks” in winter as the equivalent to food banks, due to the rise in energy prices. He mentioned libraries in the same tweet, which is good, as being a place of free warmth is something public libraries have been providing, almost accidentally, for decades. It’s so obvious, it can take a while to recognise. When I started working in public libraries, I was surprised by the number of people who came in all day. They sat down, read and chatted, then finally left. It took me months to realise that these people came in not just for the reading material or for the companionship but simply to keep warm.

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It took me perhaps longer than it should have because it’s something that is part of the traditional library image. If you ask someone what they think a library provides, they will almost certainly say books and they may well say computers. The third thing, especially this time of year, will often be the wonderful Summer Reading Challenge that rewards children with stickers and a medal when they read six books during the school holidays. But there’s other less obvious things that the library, so normal and so common in local communities, provide. Things that are really coming into play with energy prices and temperatures reaching record levels, and when people can’t easily afford the cappuccino that is the price of a seat elsewhere.

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Cappuccino? Hah. Some people can’t even afford lighting. Libraries have reported seeing children coming in to do homework when it gets dark because they can’t at home. And that was last year. This winter, it’s going to get worse. It’s now not unheard of for libraries even in affluent areas – and few places are 100 per cent affluent – to be told by their customers people will be coming in more this winter as it’s a warm safe place. In a recent Libraries Connected report, four-fifths of library services expect more people to come in for warmth and nearly half have already seen more people coming in due to the cost of living. There’s a lot more cases of ‘just sitting’ going.

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As the centre is squeezed, those at the margins are pushed out to the edges. And the public library, the nice familiar safe library, is going to be used more by those who can’t afford air conditioning. Or a frothy coffee. Or heating. Or light. There’s enough of them too that most people don’t need to spend petrol money getting to one. I remember back in the 1990s people predicted to me the death of libraries. The internet was going to get them all closed. That didn’t happen. Then the eBook came along and that was survived, even with austerity doing its worst at the same time. Because libraries are about even more than books – and don’t get me started on the benefits of reading, we’ll be here all week.

Libraries are about being local, with heat and light as standard. Wouldn’t it be nice if they also got the funding so we can provide cold as well?

Ian Anstice is editor of Public Libraries News in his spare time and a public librarian by day

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