What was a library? – Reflections from Cumbria

I recently visited Cockermouth library in Cumbria which received priority rebuilding after the 2009 floods shut the entire town for five months. Two hundred people were rescued from their homes by helicopter and a policeman drowned trying to protect residents from crossing the bridge. The library played a central role as a community resource during recovery and staff commitment to the operation of social support was recognised by their invitation to the Queen’s garden party. Cockermouth library promoted mental health networks, self help and therapies to people whose homes were devastated and have had to rebuild their lives, and it continues to do so.   

The photos assert a granite Northern firmness about their library. No messing, just a proud announcement, “FREE LIBRARY”. Back in 1903 this small spinning and weaving town would have struggled long and hard to attract the philanthropy which furnished a library. Today, during another tough slice of history maybe we need that same firmness in declaring “FREE THE LIBRARY!” Release it from financial hand-tying to fulfil the diverse social functions of which it is capable, and free us, a socially-energetic and qualified staff  to use our experience and initiative in reaching out to those who need a lifeline.  

The second picture inspired me even more; what a marking point it looks – the whole town out in excitement. Carnegie’s free library in post-industrial Cockermouth would have opened different floodgates, a healthy clamour for knowledge of the outside world; a vision of life growing  beyond  the bread-earning necessities; at last a hope for children and adults to access their intellectual potential.

Today we still witness this basic human drive and enthusiasm. Daily, people who have been invisible in the educational, political and social systems, walk into our workplaces hoping for a second chance. Every day we join people who have not read a book since they failed to do so at school, and we have the opportunity, just as in 1903, to confirm their experience of failure or to nurture and support them into a new chapter of their lives.

The evidence of these pictures reminds me just how important our jobs are and how we need to fight, not just for our personal rights to work in libraries, but to fight as advocates for those who would continue to drown in the flood of materialism and apathy if we don’t care enough.

Dawn – Library Officer

This piece is Dawn’s response to a previous post, asking the question ‘What is a library?’ – Please feel free to say what you think a library is, below.


About Alex

Digital comms officer
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