How can we save our public libraries?

This film explores the imminent threat to an institution that has, for centuries, upheld the education, social mobility and dreams of our youth

“Growing up in London, attending a state school and being in a family of five, the library was the first place I felt completely free,” explains filmmaker Greta Bellamacina. Public libraries are a cultural institution that are under imminent threat: last year saw a £50m budget cut, and over 100 libraries across the UK closed down. These are the places that spawn writers, creatives, our engineers and cultural leaders; books and a quiet place offer opportunity for youth regardless of class, gender or social status.

The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas is a new documentary exploring the threatened position of the public library, in a social and political climate that’s turning its back on young people’s prospects and dreams that are, ever so slightly, out of reach when resources deplete.

After months of research, Bellamacina and journalist Davina Catt found themselves out at the first ever public library in the British Isles: it’s in Scotland, and was built in 1741 by coal miners. It’s indicative of today to see something that’s been so well-loved dreamed up and created by the working class; so integral to education, pleasure and social mobility even today. “I thought that was an incredible symbol of hope,” she observes. “We’ve had to fight for things, and go through these struggles. There have been all these depressions, and it’s amazing to see how the education outside of the upper class was rejuvenated.”

The rage among young people against these kinds of cuts comes sporadically: we’re constantly fighting for our universities, healthcare and equality, so much so that public libraries can hang on the outskirts of our peripheral vision. “It's this kind of embedded in the culture to not expect anything,” she says. “If you don’t come from a rich background, it’s so much harder to be creative, like as a writer or an artist. I wouldn’t have pursued half the things I do without the free space these libraries afforded me.”

Bellamacina has involved everyone from Stephen Fry, to Bonnie Wright and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, who all talk candidly about what their experiences of libraries did for them. “Irvine Welsh, for instance,” explains Bellamacina, “grew up in west Scotland. He went to the library to muck about with a mob and use the free heat, but then actually when everyone went home, he would sneak back in there and go and take out loads of books. He said the librarians were almost like second mothers to him. Bonnie said she liked the quiet, how it was the one space you could be autonomous.”

Now, over one third of libraries have shut their doors, and it’s an increasing decline. The government have put libraries in the leisure budget, meaning that the libraries are viewed as "a hobby, vocation, or leisure centre", rather than the pillar of education and self-improvement they have proven themselves to be. “I believe the introduction of a national library card, with a catalogue and an app, would transform libraries and bring them up to date. You’d know there was a 3D printer in a library in Leeds, or a language or degree you could learn for free round the corner.”

“Without this, and if the decline continues, we are cutting off so many lifelines for young people. There’s a myth that this generation have everything, because of the Internet. There are people who can’t afford laptops, or school books, and we’re pushing them out.”

Unlike the Internet, there’s room for spontaneity and actual human contact. “It’s easy to romanticise this, but there’s no connection quite like it.” And people out there are fighting for it. Carnegie Library in South London was occupied by an entire community just last month. Bellamacina says: “There were more than 50 people, some taking work leave, who slept in the library. We had actually been filming for a year and a half but had to go there.”

So the fight continues. “I think it's really a sad time for anyone going into being an artist or a writer or anything in the arts, because any hope for education and freedom is under threat,” Bellamacina claims. “Any chance we have is making these ideas modern, and I hope to see that happen soon.”

The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas premieres at The Gate Cinema, Notting Hill, 23 May and in independent cinemas across the UK. Find out more here