Feature: UK libraries fall victim to funding cuts amid coronavirus pandemic

Source: Xinhua| 2020-12-26 22:08:24|Editor: huaxia

LONDON, Dec. 26 (Xinhua) -- For veteran librarian Fergus Wilde, his favourite place in Chetham's Library in Manchester, the oldest free public reference library in the English-speaking world, is the row of study areas that feature within its ancient medieval walls.

"Inside each of those you are in a little world effectively, you close the little gate behind you. And looking back at little wooden bars, the windows give out onto the city, but inside there you are faced with a sort of 10- foot-high wall of ancient knowledge. And each one of those has got its own special points."

Wilde has been a librarian at Chetham's Library for around 25 years. Through the time, he's overseen changes both within its walls, and outside of it, but with the coronavirus pandemic, Chetham's has taken an almighty hit, as have most libraries across Britain.

Recently, a report highlighted that the total funding for libraries in Britain was down by nearly 20 million pounds (about 27 million U.S. dollars) in the year to March.

Falls in funding were matched by drops in borrowing, with budgets for next year set to fall by an average of 14 percent, according to The Guardian newspaper.

Librarians warned about the impact of the cuts, particularly in the face of the pandemic, during which many branches have increased ebook availability and online services to meet demand.

Cuts, they believe, would inevitably have an impact on the people who need libraries most, estimating that England alone faced a funding gap of 4 million pounds (about 5.4 million dollars) due to the increased demand for libraries in 2020.

For many, libraries are more than just a resource, they also hold an important cultural and historical place in British communities. Chetham's Library is a fine example.

Wilde was not alone in feeling the pull of Chetham's history and wealth of knowledge.

Chetham's has been in continuous use as a public library for more than 350 years. It is housed in a beautiful sandstone building dating from 1421.

"Chetham's is the thing to see you when you come to Manchester from the library opening in the 1650s, really through to the 19th century where people are coming to see factories," he said.

Due to this, the library has welcomed the likes of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, Celia Fiennes, an English traveller and writer and Charles Dickens, a famous British novelist, journalist and editor.

Chetham's is also well-known for an oak desk in its reading room that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had used during 1840s while exploring the condition of the working class.

This year marks Engels' 200th birth anniversary. As part of an online event organized by the Chinese Consulate General in Manchester, the "Friedrich Engels Room" was unveiled in November in the Chetham's School of Music, which sits beside the library.

It is this wealth of history within the walls of the library that librarians like Wilde are so keen to hold onto.

Apart from attracting the famous scholars and other keen readers, Chetham's has also played a part in educating and being a resource for those a little closer to home.

"We've done basic skills classes in the library, for people who would not necessarily always connect with an academic collection. We do sixth form college classes, sometimes university classes, often looking at the collection as a whole."

Wilde notes the importance of not just Chetham's to Manchester, but all libraries across Britain.

Perhaps often mistaken as a middle class retreat, libraries have proven to be a valuable resource to those who need them most.

"Public libraries are as well as providing access to books you can borrow frequently, providing people's only access to online resources. And the sort of reader who is going to go in there for online resources is often the reader who doesn't have that at home. Public libraries have a very significant role in helping out people who are otherwise unable to get hold of what they need," Wilde said.

Both the impact of the coronavirus, and the opinions of those who think that libraries can be run for free by volunteers, are damning to British libraries, Wilde says.

"The fact is that these things do not run themselves. It is not simply a question of piling some books on a shelf and saying, here you are folks, the doors are open," he said.

"As public resources they have played a vital role. And I think we're in danger of creating an impression that that is the case that somehow these things can be just kept ticking over free as public spaces," he said. Enditem