There’s are many reasons why watching Friends in 2018 feels like such a blast from the past: the poorly-aged fat jokes, the landline phones, the screaming lack of diversity for a show set in central Manhattan.
But watching the gang hang out at Central Perk during a recent Netflix binge, a new thought suddenly struck me: this was the last time coffee shops were just for, well, getting coffee. Before the age of scrambling for power outlets and stretching one small americano over several hours of research, coffee houses were simply places to meet, date – or, in the case of the Friends, spend every waking hour of your life socialising. (Seriously, when do any of them actually go to work?)
In the Costas, Neros, and bare-brick hipster roasteries of today, you can barely move for laptops. Some, like London’s Shoreditch House and Forge & Co, have capitalised on the trend by offering meeting rooms, skype booths and even spa services for a hefty annual fee. Others see the macbooks and ipads as an anti-social blight on coffee shop space, erecting smug “no wifi – talk to each other” signs with increasing frequency.
But in the rush to condemn laptop-users for inflicting their stony silence on the regular clientele, the troubling forces behind the coffee shop’s unstoppable transformation are often ignored or forgotten. With the UK’s public libraries threatened by cuts and closures, freelancers, students and other remote workers often find themselves with little other choice when it comes to workspace.
An estimate from last year put the number of self-employed people in the UK at 4.8m. The number of freelancers alone in the UK increased by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2016. The demand for a quiet environment providing desks, chairs, toilets and power outlets is greater than ever – yet library access continues to dwindle, with more than 478 closures recorded across Britain since 2010.
Even if your local library hasn’t closed, it’s probably experienced a squeeze of some kind. Volunteers are rapidly replacing paid staff to keep up with budget cuts, shortening opening hours in the process. Cafes and charity shops have been forced to move in, limiting available desk space and resources. Whatever is free often gets snapped up quickly and early in the day.
Part of the overcrowding problem, of course, is that libraries are just one area in which the UK’s public services are floundering. Since 2015, state schools have lost almost £2.7bn in funding. Recent research from the University of Oxford estimates that as many as 1m000 “Sure Start” centres – introduced to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children – have closed since 2009. In a survey last year, 84 per cent of local councils blamed government cuts for the UK’s soaring homelessness problem. For school children with no place to go, cash-strapped parents, and homeless people simply looking for warmth and a toilet that won’t cost them, libraries have become the next port of call.
This isn’t to say that vulnerable people, children, and low-income families shouldn’t be welcome in libraries: the monumental role they play in enabling social mobility cannot be overstated. Rather, it’s to say that, when people are forced to use their local library as a replacement for child care, social care, or services for the homeless, something’s gone seriously wrong.
With over 22,000 coffee shops in the UK, it’s little wonder that workers-from-home flock to them in their droves. In many cases, they’ve got a much better shot at desk space, long opening hours and a hushed atmosphere than they could bank on at their local library today.
The sad thing is, many accept this situation without ever wondering what a generously funded library system could look like for them. You only need to visit the home page for Stockholm’s public libraries for a stark comparison: bookable group study rooms, homework help, librarian appointments and well-stocked shelves. There’s even, bizarrely, an electric piano available in one of them.
With funding returned to the right places, our libraries could look this way too. Without it, lower-income families will have their access to computers and literature slowly eroded, whilst freelancers and students will routinely pay for the privilege of a workspace in their local Costa.
Libraries represent some of the last truly public space in the UK today; it’d be a tragedy for every section of society if we lose them.