|In the last six years 8,000 library staff have been lost and 343 libraries have closed. Photograph: Alamy|
By Alan Wylie
October 4, 2016
Every day I hear people expressing their opinions about what public libraries should be – and whether they should exist at all.
Take the Adam Smith Institute, which in August claimed public libraries will become obsolete. The institute’s article is a classic example of two common ideas: “give them Kindles” and “everything is on the internet”. The article references the latest data from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which shows a large drop in library usage but fails to mention that cuts and closures might have something to do with the decline.
Most of the people who express opinions like this either don’t use libraries, have an agenda to follow or think the library should only provide what they personally want. Voices for the Library is here to make sure the facts about public libraries and library workers are heard.
On 5 November we’re joining the national demonstration that every library campaigner has been calling for. Here is why you should join us.
8,000 redundancies, 343 closures
In the past six years 8,000 library staff have been lost and 343 libraries have closed. Add to this a huge increase in the use of volunteers and a picture emerges of a severely hollowed-out, fragmented and de-professionalised service.
Councils have had their government funding cut by 40% since 2010 and libraries have been in the firing line as a result. And yet we estimate that, nationally, libraries cost just under £1bn a year to run and on average amount to 0.6% of a council’s overall budget.
A nationwide crisis
Cuts and closures have become a major problem across the country. In Lancashire the county council is closing 20 libraries. Campaigners have threatened a judicial review if they go ahead, and a local MP has asked the new culture minister, Karen Bradley, to intervene.
In Barnet, library workers were recently told that 46% of them would be losing their jobs. Barnet council plans to hand more libraries to volunteers and to introduce staff-less opening, a swipe card system that excludes unaccompanied under-16s. Campaigners are so concerned they have even made a video about it.
Library campaigners voice their concerns about
staff-less libraries in Barnet.
Meanwhile, Lewisham council plans to manage only three libraries itself and get volunteers to do the rest, even though its existing volunteer-led libraries have seen a huge collapse in usage. In May, campaigners and Unison members held a march in Lewisham to highlight the cuts.
In Enfield, another London borough, concerns have been raised about the creation of a few city centre hub libraries, with the rest being left to be run by volunteers or community organisations. Voices for the Library recently spoke to Smita, who has been using Enfield’s Ridge Avenue library since her daughter was born 25 years ago. “I feel very sad to learn that our local library is to be run by volunteers.We used to attend story time and during the summer holidays both my children would do the readathon challenge. The librarians had so much knowledge and would direct you to the right place to find the book you wanted whether it be for a school project or for leisure,” she said.
For many library visitors, I'm the only person they've talked to all dayIn Coventry plans are afoot to close libraries and hand them to volunteers to run, and it’s even been suggested by the council that everything should be put online and have users order books and then pick them up from lockers. Sarah Smith, a library user and campaigner from Coventry, told me that since August two out of the area’s 17 libraries have closed, with a further five earmarked to close, and another five set to become ‘partnership libraries’ - run by groups of volunteers.
“We will be left with five libraries in the whole of Coventry. But let’s be clear the provision will be massively reduced. Libraries are so much more than spaces for books, they are safe spaces for children and adults,” she said.
The fightback continues
These are just a few examples; there are countless more. The bigger picture is that libraries are part of the social glue that binds us. They offer recourse to the law, they offer access to educational opportunities, they empower us and ideally they provide a safe, trusted and non-commercial public space, and they help to foster democratic involvement. All major reasons for keeping them but sadly also major reasons for cutting them.
The situation facing public libraries in the UK is definitely a crisis and emphatically not an opportunity; unless perhaps you’re a private company or a consultant. But there are protests and petitions taking place up and down the UK, and more than 300 authors have signed a letter to the culture secretary urging her to set a new course for libraries. And there has been a victory in Bromley, where the council has U-turned on plans to privatise some of its libraries, thanks to pressure from the Unite union and the local community.
A national demonstration is only weeks away and the fightback continues. There is still hope.
Source: The Guardian