Libraries are subject to two very different stories in 2023. On one hand you have our many types of libraries and their staff remaining hugely impactful, and rightly celebrated during this National Libraries Week (October 2-8) whilst also playing a growing part in the fight against challenges that have never been more pressing such as censorship, the rise of misinformation and climate change.

Meanwhile, you have local authorities closing several branches or deleting posts. This is not a question of libraries not being well used (they are and with tens of millions of visits a year in Scotland alone) and remaining absolutely essential to empowering communities, providing equity of access, supporting intellectual freedom and democracy, but a question of "tough choices" and how public services are paid for. The topic of censorship and book banning has hit hard in America recently. In the past year there were 1,269 attempts to censor library books, the highest number since statistics were recorded by the American Library Association and during this same period, 2,571 books were targeted for censorship, a 32% increase since 2021.

So far we have yet to see the level of censorship attempts seen in the US but research by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP, our UK affiliate body) recently suggested up to a third of librarians surveyed had been asked by members of the public to censor or remove books and that these incidents had increased in recent years with the most targeted books involving empire, race and LGBTQ+ themes. More than four out of five librarians in the UK said they were concerned this will increase as more culture war battles are fought and polarised views and politics continue to inspire in some the need to censor others.

This has led to CILIP producing a guide for libraries on managing safe and inclusive spaces and this reiterates that "a library should be a place of wonder and safety for children and adults. It is a place in which people can discover themselves and learn about the world around them. It is a place in which complex, sometimes conflicting ideas can be held up for scrutiny. It is a place of dialogue and respect, tolerance and inclusion. It is a place in which cultures can meet and be reconciled." This, along with a new toolkit and research we have funded in Scotland and to be launched later this month (REVEAL - Reinforcing Ethics and Values for Effective Advocacy for Libraries, led by Dr David McMenemy at the University of Glasgow), highlights the need for decisions to be made based on the law and the ethics and values of the library profession and the need for libraries to "uphold, promote and defend intellectual freedom, including freedom from censorship". 

Read more: Why our libraries need to be open to all

The rise of fake news and misinformation is also a growing threat to our society and democracy. Many library workers have always been experts in information literacy, the skills needed to find and use information effectively and have been supporting their users with this for decades. This has moved a step further with innovative partnerships with experts such as the Ferret Fact Service providing workshops for librarians, empowering them to build on their skills and work with users to help them spot fake news and be more media literate.

We need to expand partnerships like this, and we also need there to be steps taken to ensure we have a strategy in Scotland to tackle misinformation. This needs librarians, information professionals, media, tech organisations and more all involved in the process. The rise of Artificial Intelligence adds another layer to the challenges, and libraries are uniquely placed to support their users to use and understand both responsible and ethical AI.

The theme of this year’s Libraries Week is "Green Libraries" and climate change is another massive issue where libraries are taking an active role. Libraries are sustainable and recycling by nature but are now undertaking projects such as holding workshops and discussion groups, creating carbon literacy toolkits, funding an environmentalist in residence and much more to help inspire their users to be more sustainable, all part of a Green Libraries Network across the UK.

As well as these growing challenges, our libraries continue to also provide access to knowledge and resources, improving literacy at a time when a recent National Literacy Trust report highlighted that only 43% of UK children aged 8-18 enjoy reading for pleasure. They increase digital inclusion by providing IT facilities. They tackle social isolation and support mental health and wellbeing and are often the only place in a community where no money is needed. These commitments to levelling the playing field are essential at a time when almost a third of children in the UK are living in poverty and three million people a year are using food banks, triple the amount a decade ago.

Libraries continue to do all of this against a backdrop of funding cuts that continue to reduce their ability to achieve life-changing impacts, with Unison highlighting an overall shortfall in local authority funding in the UK of £3.5bn. The precarious nature of libraries in Scotland has been shown in sharp focus with the recent closure of six libraries in Aberdeen. Libraries are both statutory and key social infrastructure and their funding models across the whole of the UK are no longer fit for purpose, regardless of what political system or party you support or choose to attach blame to.

If we truly want to take a stand against censorship, improve literacy and social mobility and stand up for truth in a post-truth world then we need our libraries and we need both local and national governments to move beyond political lines and work together to fund and support them. If you agree, make sure you stand up for or visit your library this National Libraries Week.

Sean McNamara is head of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland