Government Spending Cuts Imperil Future Of UK’s Libraries:

In the age of the internet, do we still need libraries? What’s the point of them if we can now obtain all the facts, figures & details we want online?  According to a Local Government Authority (LGA) financial forecast (reported in the “Guardian on 26th June), if the proposed 28% reduction in central government funding for the social services provided by the 373 LGA councils in England and Wales goes ahead “public libraries may disappear by the end of the decade”. Similarly, a survey by CILIP (The Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals) has estimated that 600 libraries could close and 2,159 (10%) of their 20,924 staff could lose their jobs. “Public Libraries News” calculates that “275 libraries (consisting of 234 buildings and 41 mobiles) are currently under threat, have been closed or have left council control since 1st April 2012 out of a UK total of about 4,612. Does this apparent trend really matter? The traditionalists consider a library to be  “not a luxury but one of the necessities of life” (Henry Ward Beecher: 19th century US clergyman & social reformer). His compatriot, the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury once declared that “Without libraries we have no past and no future” and for the US Congress Librarian, Archibald MacLeish “What is more important in a library than anything else is the fact that it exists”.

The journalist Peter Jackson, however – in his BBC News Magazine analysis of whether “This great British institution can survive in an era of downloads, cheap books and easy online shopping –  has asserted that  “The speed of research and interactivity of the internet makes it an altogether richer experience than traditional libraries”. Furthermore, “It’s no longer necessary to carry home on the bus a heavy stack of books from the library” and sales of e-books are fast catching up on paperbacks”. He does acknowledge that libraries provide “an environment for learning”, expert staff with specialist knowledge, free internet access for the 30% of the population without a home broadband connection and “community forums where people can meet and engage in local politics”.

CILIP statistics indicate that 322 million visits are made annually to UK public libraries, “more people (among them 78% of 5-10 year-olds) use them than attend premier league football matches” and children’s book borrowing has risen each year since 2006. They quote research from the National Literacy Trust showing that public libraries play a key part in enhancing children’s reading skills and emphasise that they “are more than just a room with books and computers. They provide public access to knowledge of the world and promote literature to all ages and the whole of society”. The Guardian columnist, Ian Clark, doesn’t believe that libraries are declining in importance: “People are simply changing the way they use them”. He is highly critical of “policymakers who think libraries should be run by untrained volunteers, We must continue to provide a highly skilled service that bridges the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t.

At the “Future of Library Services” Conference in London on 28th June, the Culture Minister, Ed Vaisey, denied that the sector is in a state of crisis. It is instead (so he claimed) “thriving”. His “resolute optimism” was greeted with scorn by library campaigners such as the award-winning children’s author Alan Gibbons – who on his blog afterwards accused Vaizey of “evasion, blandness and massaging reality” and pointed out that if the “nightmare scenario” anticipated by CILIP hasn’t yet occurred, it is only due to the “commendable resistance” organised by local communities, such as legal action, pickets, protests and the lobbying of Parliament, not to any initiatives undertaken by the Coalition Government. In March 2012, a new campaigning alliance “Speak Up For the Libraries” was formed with the objective of  (in the words of David Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, the UK’s biggest public sector trade union with over 1.3m members) “ensuring that the Government will not get away with consigning libraries to the history books”. 

Then in April, the “Surrey Libraries Action Movement” (Slam) won a High Court ruling that the county council’s plan to “replace trained librarians with a volunteer-only service in ten of its libraries was unlawful” (The Guardian”). As Gibbons noted in his blog The “Save Our Libraries” movement is firmly of the opinion that volunteers should supplement trained librarians, not replace them”. The year-long battle by local residents in London’s Kensal Rise to save their library appeared lost when, in the middle of the night on 29th May, council workers supported by police stripped it bare of books, furniture, murals from the 1930’s and a plaque marking its inauguration in 1900 by Mark Twain. Since then, however, there have been negotiations with Brent Council for local people to run it, so long as this doesn’t involve “ongoing costs for the local authority”.

This week (28th June), the TV compere Jonathan Ross re-opened the Hampstead Garden Suburb Community Library, whose planned closure was rescinded by Barnet Council following a petition which attracted 2,500 signatures. A contributor to the “Hendon & Finchley Times” took the view that this was “another case of the (wealthy) residents of Golders Green and the surrounding areas getting favourable treatment from the council”. Such success stories anyway appear to be the exception. There is no sign, for example (notes “Public Libraries News”) that “Croydon  and Wandsworth Councils are wavering from their intention to wash their hands of their libraries. Saving money is their prime, perhaps their sole motivator”. As Ruth Bond, Chair of the NFWI (National Federation Of Women’s Institutes) –  which is part of the “Speak Up For Libraries Alliance” – has affirmed, her members “Are dismayed to see the Government stand by and watch in silence while our library service is eroded and crumbles. Action to secure the future of Britain’s libraries is long overdue”.




Filed under: Society | Posted on June 30th, 2012 by Colin D Gordon

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