As the Burgess Road Library faces closure, Stephen Collins explores just why we should value this library so much.
As I hear the doors swinging open and the sound of children’s feet rushing into the building, I briefly look up from my textbooks. It’s just gone 10:45am, and you can tell by the looks on their faces that this is the highlight of these children’s weeks. The group leader asks them all to gather round and they shuffle into position. Before long they’ve started into their first nursery rhyme. The noise is deafening, and it remains at that volume for the following half an hour until ‘Rhyme Time’ eventually subsides for another week.
It’s a typical Friday morning at Burgess Road Library. While students over in Hartley Library queue and clamour for half a desk to call their own in the stressful run-up to exams, very few are aware that a homely and vibrant haven lies just across the road. Having recently celebrated its 80th birthday, it pre-dates the university itself. Public libraries come in an endlessly diverse range of shapes, styles and sizes, but over the past four years as a Southampton student I have discovered something very unique in this particular one.
We can all remember leaving for uni. It’s an odd time of life. Don’t get me wrong, starting uni (with everything that Freshers’ week entails) is exciting, unpredictable and brilliant. But it’s also a time when you can feel more out of your comfort zone than ever before.
I know it felt that way for me. Which, to be honest, is kind of what I wanted from uni. I wanted to be stretched, I wanted to be thrown into a new environment full of challenges and opportunities, I wanted to make friends with people from entirely different backgrounds to what I’d known growing up. And being a student has, in many ways, been exactly the buzz I was hoping it would be.
However, you can also become slightly detached from reality while basking in life around campus each day. You forget that there are people in the world outside the 18-25 bracket. Here we are, working towards our well-respected degrees, delving further into our student loans, and enjoying a whole range of privileges. It can come as a shock to a lot of students to hear that there are people in need in this community, and people like this might even be living next door to you in your student accommodation.
Burgess Road Library serves a wide cross-section of the local population. It backs on to the Flowers Estate residential area, which sadly remains one of the most socially-deprived areas of Southampton. Countless library users have grown up in this area, and still live there, and see the public library as somewhere to learn, to make friends and to explore new ideas through borrowing books, using the computers or attending classes. All things we take for granted as university students.
And it’s not only those beyond school age. ‘Rhyme Time’ is just one example of how the library plays a vital part in the lives of local children. Countless schoolchildren bound in the doors after school each afternoon to learn and play games on the computers, to do homework, and to practice their reading within the safety of the library’s walls. Friendships are forged with other youngsters they might not otherwise bump into.
That’s not to say it doesn’t benefit us students from the other side of Burgess Road too.
I’m in no way the only student who has experienced the warm welcome of Burgess Road Library. The library isn’t bursting at the seams with university students, but a smattering of us can usually be found revising at the tables inside, hiding between bookshelves containing everything from crime thrillers to comic books. I vividly remember my first time walking through those old library doors, and being greeted by two unexpectedly friendly librarians. I was immediately captivated by the library. It was a reminder of ‘real life’ outside uni every time I arrived – meeting elderly people with hilarious stories to tell, or joking with locals who don’t give you any extra respect for what you’re studying but just treat you like one of their own.
The main reason I want to express my fondness for this place now is because this incredible facility is being threatened with closure. This year, Southampton City Council have proposed to close six public libraries in the city and surrounding areas as part of government cost-saving measures, and Burgess Road Library has been proposed as one of the six in the firing line. This would perhaps be understandable if the library was derelict, and had books thick with dust from years of neglect. But this is simply not the case.
I was browsing the BBC News website while eating breakfast one day last week, when my attention was grabbed by a quote from the current Education Secretary, stating her desire to “launch a war on illiteracy” in the UK. I’m no political expert, but closing libraries – especially dynamic, active ones like the one on Burgess Road – seems like the biggest backwards step imaginable for succeeding in this “war”.
If you’d like to show your support for keeping the wonderful community service at Burgess Road Library open beyond this summer, there are two things you can do. First of all, there’s an event at the library today (7th February) called ‘For Reading Out Loud’ with reading activities, food, music and even a graffiti artist. It’s free, it’s for all ages and it’s open to absolutely everyone. Drop in anytime between 10am and 4pm, and see what the library’s all about. And secondly, if you have a spare moment now, please add your name to the growing online petition at chn.ge/1wVm64B.
It really is a place worth protecting.