Save the Library

Towards the end of 2009 the UK government (then New Labour) published a consultation paper about the future of libraries. It contained some alarming proposals for privatising or voluntarising the library service, while watering down the legal obligation of public authorities to provide a comprehensive library service for all. One of the major planks of the argument was that new digital media were making books redundant and that public libraries were consequently fast becoming a waste of tax payers’ money.

These arguments are being used now by the successor coalition government, which seems quite happy to see local authorities save money by closing libraries at will. At the time of the original consultation paper the Secretary of State for the Arts Media and Sport , Margaret Hodge, asked for public comments. I sent her this personal response, and I think it is just as relevant today as it was then.

Dear Margaret Hodge (I wrote),

We are in serious danger of losing sight of what is the most important role a library should play. It is, more than anything, the place where good writing can be found and enjoyed by all. While information - the facts of Mr Gradgrind - can still be obtained from books, the online digital route is faster and more efficient; digital music and films likewise. But literature is not digital, it is analogue. It is about the living world, not efficiency and search engines.

Nor is it merely a private pleasure, outside the remit of public services. Literature is an important social good and reading it, either privately or collectively in groups, is stimulating, consoling, contemplative and life-enhancing. Good reading, good literature, lifts and enriches people's spirits, and the library is its treasury.

Yet for years local politicians in large parts of Britain have treated the library service with contempt. They think, as there are no votes in it, they can safely let it run down.

They tell themselves that reading for pleasure doesn't matter; that the internet is making books obsolete; that ever fewer people are bothering with them. But reading is not in terminal decline. Millions of people do it. If, as stated in the consultation paper (Q 11), only a third of young people 16-24 actively visit the public library, that is still over 2 million people.

Such misconception encourages authorities to whittle away at library staff, opening hours and book acquisition, and to whistle cheerfully as buildings are neglected, run down and closed. They have made a self-fulfilling prediction of decline.

It's no good looking to schools and universities to pick up the slack. School libraries are being squeezed to such an extent that less than a third of Secondaries now bother to employ a qualified librarian. Meanwhile, so it is reported, university libraries are spending half as much on books as they did a decade ago.

Local authorities (unlike schools) have a statutory duty to make good writing freely available via library services. The time has come for them to take this duty seriously, and return libraries to where they belong, close to the heartbeat of our communities' social and cultural life.

This will take energy, imagination, leadership and commitment. But, while the consultation document mentions a few interesting experiments - for example in Wigan, Norwich, Luton and Worcester - existing library administrations around the country do not seem supercharged with these qualities. Today's library should be a vibrant cultural hub. In addition to its professional staff, it needs a creative director who will run a writer in residence programme, writing groups, and public readings of various kinds, including performances by guest writers in front of audiences, and reading groups similar to Liverpool's Get Into Reading scheme [see footnote below].

Traditional school visits, and other parties coming in for specific events, will continue to be welcomed, but the creative library will host all sorts of other meetings, receptions, awards, stand-up comedy evenings, films, play readings, exhibitions and bridge or chess tournaments. It will certainly have an IT centre, will publish books and pamphlets, and have a good quality café and a shop. So it is a busy place, while at the same time providing havens of peace for reading and study. Such a library might easily operate in conjunction with, even share a building with, a museum, art gallery, Adult Educational Institute or (as in Worcester) local archives.

Libraries must be local. To centralize or nationalize them would be fatal. Nor should they be farmed out at any price to private enterprise. Instead library services should be tied close to the community, possibly with their governance devolved to a trust (as in Wigan and Luton) or, better, to a statutory board of governors from the locality, very similar to that of a school. These library boards would include readers' and writers' representatives, democratically elected. Also on the educational model, funding would be divided between central and local government.

The Victorians had a powerful belief that libraries, with art galleries and museums, are temples of culture and knowledge, and they built them in the appropriate style. We may scoff at the idea of temples, yet there has been no difficulty in reinventing galleries and museums in the modern (or post-modern) idiom. Indeed, people flock to these buildings as never before. Instead of allowing the deliberate destruction of our libraries, it is time to reinvent them in the same way, and for very much the same reasons.


Robin Blake

FOOTNOTE: Liverpool's "Get Into Reading" scheme brings literature to more than a hundred Merseyside community groups, including care homes, schools in areas of low literacy, homelessness shelters, drug rehabilitation units and the high security mental health hospital at Ashworth. In these groups novels, stories and poetry are read aloud and discussed, led by a trained facilitator. For these sessions material is drawn not from transient bestseller lists but from the permanent canon of literature. "Get Into Reading" is not a charitable initiative by quixotic volunteers; it is professionally funded by social, educational and health services, because they know how effective it is. It is exactly this kind of initiative that should be seen in today's libraries.

Posted on February 10th, 2012


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