The Battle To Save Our Public Libraries


This is a guest post by Desmond Clarke. Desmond retired as President & CEO of Thomson Publishing Services Group and he is a former director of Faber & Faber. He is a veteran library campaigner.

2016 is expected to be a critical year for public libraries as the next round of austerity bites and local authorities move to close many more libraries or transfer them to volunteer groups. This is in addition to the 549 UK libraries closed since 2010.

The librarians’ professional body, CILIP is so concerned that it has warned national and local government that it is prepared to legally challenge the failure to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service as defined in the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act. A number of prominent authors led by the Society of Authors have voiced their concerns and expressed their willingness to back legal action.

Public libraries are enormously popular and are visited by a third of the population, and by almost a half of those living in the most deprived areas. They are essential to supporting literacy, reading, education and the acquisition of information and knowledge. They also help people get online, do their homework, find employment and build strong communities. The main reasons that people visit libraries are to access a wide range of books in all formats, and to go online. Last year there were 225 million visits to public libraries just in England.

The popularity of libraries explains why several hundred protest and friends groups have sprung up to protect their local library. Councilors are lobbied, petitions are signed, letters are written to the local press and protesters fill the public benches at council meetings. Councils blame the cuts on national government while ministers at the DCMS and officials at the agencies responsible for developing and improving public libraries sat on their hands. It is only in the past eighteen months that the DCMS has even admitted that there may be a crisis and established an independent inquiry led by William Sieghart.

Sieghart highlighted that libraries are not only safe places for literacy and learning, but they have also been the starting point for empowerment for many citizens who lack opportunities at home. Furthermore, libraries benefit, and engage with, local lives and communities. We must never underestimate the importance of public libraries, especially to the young, the elderly and the disadvantaged. Libraries are essential to improving literacy standards, to closing the digital divide and as community hubs for the well-being of the nation. To lose them would be a national disaster.

Public libraries have long been the Cinderella of local government as elected members try to cope with the ever increasing demands of other statutory services. Libraries lack the shroud factor and are often seen as a soft option for cuts. It is too easy to cut the book budget, reduce opening hours or threaten to close branch libraries unless they are taken over by volunteers. A few councils have even proposed retaining only their central library and either closing or transferring their other libraries to be run by willing volunteers. Others have looked to outsource their libraries to public service mutuals. It is not an exaggeration to say that our public library service is being strangled by local government even though they represent less than 2% of councils’ total spend.

Austerity cuts are the most immediate crisis facing libraries but the service has long been neglected by successive governments which commissioned numerous reports and consultancies studies but failed to implement the recommendations. While library usage and borrowing have declined at an alarming rate as services are cut, this decline started more than a decade ago as the service failed to meet the needs of its users. The public inevitably walk away if their library is tired, poorly stocked and unwelcoming.

The service has long been in need of radical reform, not least to merge or share services across the 151 separately managed authorities just in England. It is badly in need of investment in a digital infrastructure and a plan to re-invigorate its network. It also needs to establish a national user entitlement stating what we should expect from our local library whatever our post code.

The Government’s response to the Sieghart Inquiry has been to establish a Taskforce, led by the chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council with a small executive but a large management committee made up of representatives of the numerous stakeholder bodies. It is fair to say that the Taskforce has made a slow start in its first nine months, essentially lobbying decision makers in national and local government and completing the installation of wi fi in branch libraries. What we have not seen is a clear vision for a modern library service and an action plan to make that a reality.

In the meantime we should join forces with CILIP and send a very clear message to our MPs and the Government that the library network must not be destroyed in the search for financial cuts. That remains a real risk.

This blog is based on an article by the author and published by The Guardian on 18 December 2015.

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