Making Libraries a National Priority

school librarian

Last week the national press finally started talking about the local issue of libraries. Robbie Millen, in the arts column in The Times, suggested privatising the libraries. It’s an idea – taking the libraries away from local councils, and perhaps turning them over to a sponsor, a business, or a group of trustees. Not on an individual basis, but as a whole. In which case, making the local issue a national one. Because that’s the real tragedy of the situation – while we, as a nation, continue to regard our 265 million public library visits last year as a ‘local’ issue rather than a combined national issue, we’re going to lose our libraries.

Local councils up and down the country are closing or ‘consulting’ on closing their libraries. Or in some cases morphing the libraries into unmanned buildings housing books. Some councils put a positive spin on this – Barnet council say these new volunteer-led libraries will be technologically advanced (you’ll need a key card to enter the building). Others just admit the fact that it’s about saving money.

In Swindon they have proposed to withdraw funding from 14 out of 15 libraries. In Brent six libraries have been boarded up. In Coventry they want to replace 17 libraries with five ‘super-hubs’. But while ‘the library’ remains a local issue, it’s hard to collate all the statistics because each council is proposing its own method: some are not closing the buildings, but making staff redundant; others claim to be making brand new ‘hub’ libraries, and are closing smaller ones or turning them over to the ‘community’.

The Department for Media, Culture and Sport insists that new libraries are being built, and it’s true that some localities are making large ‘hub’ libraries. Birmingham spent £189 million on their new flagship library, opening it last autumn, but have already shortened staffed hours from 73 to 40 hours a week, talked about making 100 of the 188 library staff redundant, and posted notices asking the public to donate books as the library itself can’t afford to buy new books, the budget having been blown on the building itself.

What you may not know is that more than 100 libraries closed last year. There are currently 3917 libraries in the UK. There were 4023 in 2013/4, 4482 in 2009/10 and 4622 in 2003/4. And the numbers continue to decline.

Most people don’t want large ‘hub’ libraries in flashy buildings with no budget for books. They want small local libraries with free wifi, a knowledgeable librarian, a choice of books or the ability to order them in, and space to sit and work/read within walking distance from their home. Libraries work best when they serve the people living in the streets around them – that’s why it’s a local issue. So we are stuck in a vicious cycle, because if it’s a local issue, then a council doesn’t have to answer to a national outcry.

But will closing libraries save money in the long run? Will making librarians redundant save money long-term? And what effect will it have on society?

I’ve talked before about what a librarian does. And it’s much more than simply shelving books in alphabetical order or reading to children. And you can read here about the trial that Barnet library protesters staged about ‘unmanned’ libraries. A library isn’t just a building of books.

But councils will argue they were turning the libraries over to communities, hence imbuing the local area with ‘community’ spirit and relying upon people/volunteers who really care for the books and libraries. Actually I think the closing of libraries, and retaining only unmanned ‘community’ libraries will have the opposite effect. A vital component of community living will vanish.

Because at the moment, it’s the face-to-face interaction that makes librarians the real life savers. Talking to local users of the library, such as the elderly and new mothers, the library is a lifeline. A way out of isolation and loneliness. There are few village halls anymore, fewer and fewer community gatherings. Even supermarkets have us scanning our own groceries – soon there really won’t be any face-to-face interaction – in fact forcing us further and further away from ‘community’ living and more into social isolation.

There’s a growing epidemic of loneliness in this country, accompanied by a growth in mental health issues, and the library is one of the few places left plugging the loneliness gap. Libraries need to be local for people – providing a friendly community place, a place within walking distance, and of course somewhere that’s warm and free – meaning that it removes all socio-economic barriers. It’s an equalizer. It is a sanctuary for those of all social classes, and with a skilled person on hand to solve any problems.

Libraries have their role to play in our nation’s literacy of course, and in that way they are a social equalizer in reading and learning and education – the basic tenets of a civilisation. But they are also a social equalizer in writing. For all our talk of diversifying our culture so that writers can come from anywhere, and anyone can be a writer, if we get rid of the libraries, how will writers learn their craft? Writers need to read – they also need a free place to research and, often, to write.

Those writers who are already published make money from the library (and albeit scant, it still counts). In publishing there is a massive divide between the few authors taking home huge pay rolls (JK Rowling, David Walliams), and then all the many many others, who are earning little, but who receive for part of their income PLR (public lending right). In February 2016, PLR made payments totalling £6 million to 22,357 writers, illustrators, etc. For some writers it increases their profile, and for others it provides tremendous pleasure – because they can see that their words are being read.

Recently we’ve seen the scandal of literary festivals not paying authors, and now we’re pulling another source of income, and respect, and we’re denying accessibility for readers to those lesser known writers.

Sales of print books are up – Waterstones are actually seeing a profit for the first time in about eight years. But if you can’t afford books, then the library has always been the port of call for readers. Especially children. Any parent whose child has sped through the Horrid Henry, Winnie the Witch, Alex Rider, Malory Towers series of books at a rate of one a night, or a few a week, knows how precious that library resource can be in building readers for life. And studies show that children’s enjoyment of reading has a greater impact on a child’s educational achievement than their parents’ socio-economic status. Reading is key to success. And yet, not all schools have libraries either. In fact, Argyll and Bute council announced last week that they are axing all school librarians in an attempt to make £9 million worth of savings over two years. Another local issue?

There are enterprising ideas out there for saving money if you look for them, as well as the privatisation route. MinervaReads thought that there might be a way of opening secondary school libraries to the public…or rehousing libraries alongside book retailers or coffee shops…both ideas to share the burden of rents and pool resources and knowledge.

But the councils are closing libraries faster than the ideas can be voiced. And their local ‘consultation documents’ don’t allow space for such blue sky thinking.

Don’t shut the libraries. In the long run this will create greater isolation, more depression, further illiteracy, less community interaction. It will make reading and writing inaccessible to so many. But if everyone keeps looking at this as a local issue, individual to each council, then we’ll fail to see the bigger picture until it’s too late.

And we won’t know what we’ve lost till it’s gone.