To my mind the litmus test of a civilised community is the presence of either a bookshop or a library, preferably both. Whenever I visit a new town or city I can’t help but keep an eye out for a bookshop or, failing that, a local library, because that suggests that the locals value the life of the mind at least as much as branded clothing, a sofa outlet or a supermarket chain.
So I was horrified at rumours that the small town we’ve just moved to, which boasts a small but lively bookshop as well as a branch library, was in danger of losing the latter. “337 libraries have closed in the United Kingdom in the last 5 years,” I read. The county council, needing to make cuts in what continues to be the deepest, longest period of austerity in peace time, eventually opted to cut all branch library times (and therefore staff salaries) by 20%, safeguarding this branch library.
Long term, however, the future is not good: the county council has stated that “retaining all branch libraries in their current form is not seen as realistic.” In other words more radical options have to be considered such as outright closure, relocation to smaller, probably shared premises with the consequent loss of stock.
Limited opening times leads to fewer borrowers, as does a smaller stock of reading material; it’s easy to imagine a spiral, resulting in fewer book issues, in turn justifying closures. But even a thriving library, with a healthy number of book issues, is at risk; in Abergavenny there are plans to merge the popular library with a one-stop shop and relocate it to the Town Hall, which will result in job losses, plus a significantly reduced library service in a much reduced space.
Popular protests have mixed results. In Cardiff the council backed down from closing seven branch libraries after street protests but this is only a temporary reprieve; in Bristol another threat to close seven branches is meeting with “significant opposition”; in Barnet in London a council meeting considering library cuts was stormed by protesters. But in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales campaigners lost a battle when the council plumped for radical changes involving plans for “community led facilities”; elsewhere job losses will inevitably ensue as Thurrock council in Essex plans to introduce more volunteer workers, and Devon County Council is also planning an independent, community-owned ‘mutual’ to run library services. West Lothian, a predominantly rural district of Scotland, is about to axe its mobile library service, a loss to more far-flung communities and residents.
All this — culled from a local newsletter — is depressing news, as is the statistic that in just one year, between 2013 and 2014, council spending on libraries in England dropped from £783 million to £757.3 million, a fall of 3.3%. Does it matter? I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the reasons to followers of a book review blog why public access to books and relevant information, free at point of delivery, is not only desirable but important, both for individuals and for a healthy democratic society. If I do have to do so I may need to devote a separate post to it (Voices for the Library have a helpful list), but in the meantime it’s important to recognise that past generations have enshrined public access to books in law.
The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 states that “It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof.” So there is a statutory requirement that public libraries should be provided, but local authorities, in a bid to cut public services in the light of reduced revenues, are looking to be creative about how that provision could continue with less financial outlay. I suspect the weasel words in the Act, that a library authority “have regard to the desirability” of certain requirements, are resulting in much reinterpretation, particularly in the reversal of a lot of good practice that has arisen over half a century.
The Act directs that a library authority shall in particular have regard to the desirability
“that facilities are available for the borrowing of, or reference to, books and other printed matter, and pictures, gramophone records, films and other materials, sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children; and of encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service, and of providing advice as to its use and of making available such bibliographical and other information as may be required by persons using it; and of securing, in relation to any matter concerning the functions both of the library authority as such and any other authority whose functions are exercisable within the library area, that there is full co-operation between the persons engaged in carrying out those functions.
I’ve highlighted what I think are key phrases in this part of the Act, referring to ready access to appropriate materials and the provision of professional advice, both of which are jeopardised by the reduction of library services, however it is dressed up. It’s worrying that the place of benevolent legislators has been taken by modern-day philistines.
I’m reasonably well off, have my own collection of books, and am clearly online: why should I be fussing about public libraries? Well, I’m not dead yet, so the stance taken by the Library Campaign — in which they “affirm that publicly funded libraries and information services continue to play a key role in lifelong learning” — is one that, on a selfish level, appeals to me. But surely learning is something we as a society in an ever changing world can’t limit to the early part of life, especially with Continuing Education also being squeezed (not least with regard to ‘non-utilitarian’ subjects).
Anyway, to cut a long rambling story short, the upshot is this: despite the advice that one should never volunteer, I found my hand going up to be on a steering committee to draft a constitution for a new group, the Friends of our local library. To resort to cliché, I shall be on a steep learning curve. That’s lifelong learning for you.