Ciara Eastell
10,801 views • 12:34

Cast your mind back to just over 12 months ago. Here in Exeter, there was snow - tons of it. Trains stopped, shops shut, schools closed, but there was one building in this city that opened. It was the library. It opened every single one of its usual opening hours. It was a place in the city that offered warmth, that offered solace, that offered a place just to be. In Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, was shot dead by a white police officer. On the day after the grand jury verdict, several months later, all public buildings in the area were closed due to civil unrest, except one: the Ferguson Municipal Public Library. Scott Bonner, the library director, spent the previous night agonizing over whether to open. Around him, shops, schools, businesses remained shuttered, but he decided to open at 9:00 a.m., the library's usual opening time. Nobody told Emily, the manager of Exeter Library, or Scott, the director of Ferguson Library, to open. No one would have blamed them if they closed, but they decided to open. "We made a point", Scott says, "to say our doors are wide open." Over the past 25 years, keeping the doors open has been at the heart of my work as a librarian and a library leader. And I've loved these past ten years working with library staff and local communities to make sure that the doors of all 50 of Devon's libraries have remained open at a time of huge austerity. And I've done this because I believe in the power and potential of libraries to change people's lives. Libraries, at their best, enable social mobility. We're here for everyone, and we're here to encourage you to develop your ideas, your imagination, your creativity. Libraries are a safe and welcoming place in a world that's increasingly divided. One of my absolute favorite times of the day in the library is first thing in the morning. When the doors open, there are queues of people ready and waiting. And I love that magical moment when you cross the threshold: you cease to be a consumer; you're here as a citizen, free to be yourself and to pursue your personal interests, safe in the knowledge that no one is going to ask you to pay - you can just be. And perhaps most important of all, libraries give children the very best foundation in life: a love of reading. All the research shows that developing a love of reading in early age gives the very best foundation and helps build attainment later in life more than any other factor, including parental income. So come with me and sit in the library and just observe what's going on. See the students revising for their exams sat alongside the homeless man who's in the library every hour it's open. See the freelancer running their business. See the Spanish teacher giving lessons. See the child of refugee parents sharing their growing love of reading. It's not just that these individual activities happen in the library, it's the combination of the different activities and different people that give the library its life, its energy, its vitality. We've recently been doing some research with the University of Exeter Business School into the social and financial value of libraries. And the academic team has concluded that libraries are the very definition of heterotopias, places of transformation, places of possibility, places of multiplicitous possibility, places that are inherently inclusive. And, and I may be biased, but what makes the library particularly special are the staff. Long gone are the images of us as quiet creatures hiding from the world. These days, I like to think of us as gentle subversives, new radicals committed to bringing you good quality information. We stand against fake news; we stand for trusted information. Recently, I was walking through the library, busy going from one meeting to the next, when I was stopped dead in my tracks by a man who asked me, "When will my grief end? My wife has died, and I need to find a book that will tell me when my grief will end." I was taken aback. Here was a man who needed someone to talk to and who thought of the library as a place that could provide an answer to this most difficult and challenging question. People trust libraries, and they trust those of us who work in them. They often share highly personal information because they trust us to handle that information sensitively and securely. Library workers take notice. They see the whole person. They come with a predisposition to help - no questions asked. They're super connectors within their local community, forging new connections between different groups and individuals that just wouldn't happen otherwise. Research from the Pew Institute in the US in 2017 backs this up and shows just how trusted library staff are in the eyes of the public. What a fantastic base to build on, particularly when there's such high levels of distrust these days in public institutions. Closer to home, 84 percent of library users surveyed in Devon last year said that they would recommend the library to family and friends; that's a higher score than similar surveys undertaken by Netflix, and Apple, Waitrose, and Marks & Spencer's. Sometimes, I wonder if the founders of our libraries would recognize the libraries we have today. 150 years ago, the great and good of this city came together to decide whether Exeter should have its own library. There was plenty of debate, but ultimately the decision was taken to increase taxes by a modest amount so that everyone, regardless of income or background, could benefit from the knowledge and resources of the library. And I love to think that the values that underpinned the commitment to opening the doors of Exeter's first library remain at the heart of what we do today, around opening up access, around being free, around being a citizen of this city. But I equally love that we've adapted and changed as our communities have changed. Whilst books and reading remain the absolute lifeblood of libraries, built around that are so many programs and services that mean that the library has something to offer everyone. And it may surprise you what some of the best libraries have to offer. Fab labs, where you can try out tech like 3D printers, laser cutters, and digital embroidery machines. Business and intellectual property centers, where you can develop your business ideas. Arts and cultural events, which bring the best in live literature and theater to rural areas. And the Summer Reading Challenge, that reaches over 600,000 children across the country every year. We have drag queen story times, where toddlers hear their favorite stories told by the most glamorous people you've ever seen. Recently we've worked with homeless charities to set up clothing rails, where you can drop off warm clothing you no longer need and those in the homeless community can take what's useful to them; it's a beautifully simple idea and one that shows the connecting power of the library. This is what the best libraries around the world are doing, adapting and responding to their local community, working with others to increase the value and impact on people's lives. And there's so much more we need to do to understand that value. And as we develop that understanding, we need to throw our typical modesty aside and shout from the rooftops about what we do because so much of it remains unknown. Too often, politicians think the library has had its day and can be replaced by an iPad and a Wi-Fi connection. Our job now, all of us, is to show, in an era of fake news and increasing loneliness, that we need our libraries now more than ever. What if these places, instead of being stripped of money and resources, were being invested in? What if those hidden acts of kindness that are happening in most libraries every day were recognized by policymakers as providing vital infrastructure in local communities. And what if we could afford to buy the most dazzling array of books and resources to stimulate everyone's curiosity? Austerity has been so, so tough on libraries these past 10 years, and sadly, it doesn't look as though it's going to get any easier. So if we want our libraries to be here a 150 years from now, let's not wait until there's a risk that the library has to close its doors. The most powerful thing you can do to support your library is simply to use it. Keep coming through the doors; keep exploring all that's on offer; keep telling your friends and family all that's of value. Let's do everything we can to show governments and funders just how vital these spaces are for our children, for our elderly and for those who are the most vulnerable. But let's not leave the library just for these groups; all of us need it to be there. So come with me through the doors of the library. You may just be surprised by what you find. Thank you. (Applause)