There’s no shortage of reasons to love libraries, and here’s another: a new survey from the UK shows a significant number of them are planning to serve as “warm banks” this winter for people who need to take shelter from the cold.
Sarah Shaffi reports today for The Guardian that, from a survey of libraries in England and Wales from the charity Libraries Connected, 60 percent of respondents are considering adding extra features to provide haven to patrons who need it.
Libraries Connected’s snapshot survey of over 50 library leaders found that 61% plan to provide additional activities such as games and crafts to keep people amused for long periods of time, 43% plan to serve hot drinks, and 39% plan to install extra desks and comfortable chairs for those using libraries to keep warm.
Recent years have seen a flurry of stories about libraries in the US expanding their efforts to meet the needs of their most vulnerable patrons. In the US, some are providing childcare as others hire social workers to support patrons experiencing housing insecurity, mental health issues, and more. The American Library Association provides a number of resources for librarians who want to support people undergoing homelessness or poverty, noting that, “with no safety net to speak of, homeless citizens often turn to the library for help.”
Libraries and librarians are amazing. Still, these efforts tell the story of our society’s failures: of the total absence of any significant social safety net, of the economic precariousness that dominates so many people’s lives, and of the widespread lack of safe public space. This isn’t a feel-good story: it’s the story of an incredible group of people (librarians) stepping in when they shouldn’t have to. It is unfair to place the burden of our failed social safety net on them.
Not surprisingly, the outside help they receive also tends to be limited. Shaffi reports that, among the survey’s respondents in England and Wales, “just 4% of library leaders expect to receive any extra funding for this activity,” an alarmingly low number. The same trend seems likely to hold true in the US. And, of course, libraries in the US are doing this work even as rightwing groups and politicians mount a sustained attack on free expression, and specifically on libraries’ ability to serve everyone equally.
Libraries shouldn’t have to do this. (Who am I to say all this? Just someone who loves the library.) Still, when they do—and they inevitably will, because these problems aren’t going anywhere anytime soon—they deserve what we all do: the time, financial resources, and supportive climate to do their excellent work, serving everyone who walks through the door.