A tear-jerking tract

William Sieghart’s report on the sad state of England’s public libraries dismays TONY SIMPSON

THE REVIEW of England’s public libraries produced by William Sieghart, released as Parliament adjourned for Christmas, suggests that the Tories wanted to bury it.

It makes desperately sad reading, with yet another call for the “complete reinvigoration” of the public library service after years of neglect. 

In the past decade almost 500 of Britain’s 3,300 public libraries have been lost, most of them since the Con-Dem government took over. A further 1,000 are expected to close within two years. Footfall in libraries has fallen by a half since 1997, when it was hoped a Labour government would renew the library service, but contraction has continued. 

At this rate, the public library service may virtually collapse within a decade and with it we face the loss of books and publicly provided information resources to entire communities. Charity shops and book fares may be heaving with cheap reading, including ex-library books, but they are no substitute for a decent library service. 

What we are witnessing is a familiar pattern in public services — they are run down before being closed down. While e-books and Amazon are blamed, there has been a tragic failure to invest in the public library service, accompanied by remorseless rationing. Along with limiting opening hours, there are cuts to staff, book stock and information resources. 

Faced with a government-imposed austerity budget public libraries are a soft option for cuts, or what Devon’s Tory-run county council calls “tough choices.” They have drastically reduced their mobile library service and propose so-called community-led libraries for historic towns like Colyton and Axminster, meaning libraries could be handed over to voluntary trusts. Even so, library cuts have faced strong resistance from local communities. 

Though public libraries have existed since the middle of the 19th century, Britain has never had a properly funded national public library service. Until 1919, many libraries relied heavily on philanthropists like steel boss Andrew Carnegie and West Country publisher John Passmore Edwards who founded Bodmin Library as well as those of Newton Abbot, Penzance, St Ives, Truro and many other towns. Miners’ halls and institutes provided many superb libraries in working-class communities. 

Yet while public libraries were seen as  the cornerstone of a free and egalitarian society, they lagged behind in the post-war welfare state. Only since 1964 has there been a requirement to provide a “comprehensive and efficient public library service” and this is being widely flouted. There are excellent examples such as Manchester, where public libraries began, to the modern Hive at Worcester — Europe’s first joint university and public library — but these are in the minority. Library committees have been merged or are often the poor relation of local councils. Many staff are part-time, often untrained, though helpful and hardworking women.

Buildings sometimes reflect the age of philanthropy more than municipal pride. For many years book stocks and other materials have been under pressure and there has been insufficient investment to enable public libraries to embrace the latest advances in technology. 

By 1989, when the new “supermarket” central library in Cardiff was opened, public libraries were facing huge challenges from the revolution in IT and from the private sector. The talk was of automatic issuing systems and the “paperless library,” technology already in use in some businesses, yet many local libraries were still using dye stamps and cardboard tags to issue books and some still are because few municipal libraries could afford electronic storage systems. 

Margaret Thatcher’s government produced the Green Paper Funding Our Public Library Service which  reframed the debate in financial terms and called for improving the mix of “products and services.” Library users began to be referred to as “consumers” and “customers,” while ministers spoke of “the library business” which needed to engage in market testing and income generation such as charging for popular fiction. 

Tory minister Lord Luce repeated the mantra of keeping the basic library service free,  just as Con-Dem ministers now talk of the NHS “free at the point of use.” The term “basic” suggested that these were people who would quite happily divest themselves of much of what passed as public libraries, which few of their class used. 

What would a socialist policy for public libraries look like? We have first to acknowledge that complex cultural and information needs can never be wholly resolved by privatised solutions. As long ago as 1942, a little-known part of the Beveridge Report referred to the difficulties people  faced in understanding their rights and duties and the need for every community to have access to information and advice. 

If the modest library at Honiton where I live can offer free wi-fi and computer access, and an automated issue and returns system, then every library can. Likewise we are attached to a Citizens Advice Bureau, another useful model. 

Why should not every library also be linked to a local university as the Hive in Worcester is — thus linking town and gown, young and old? Sieghart suggests changes in British and European law to allow library users to borrow e-books and other digital information remotely, subject to authors’ rights. A socialist government would ensure every library and home had this technology. Libraries could be paid for promoting borrowing, especially in hard-to-reach communities.

The Scottish Book Trust wants every child to be enrolled in a public library but why stop there? Every citizen should be opted in, as they are to the NHS, with a national library card. Public libraries are good for our health and education. They are not just a local resource but should form part of a larger, national system which, like the library catalogue, should be available to every user as part of their rights as a citizen. 

Will Labour’s austerity budget embrace such a vision?

Morning Star

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