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Opinion: Don't sit in silence over cuts to our libraries

Author: 
John Freeman

Britain's Libraries Under Threat from the ConDems

(Adapted from SchNews) As noisy protests continued against tax avoidance by big business and cuts in education and benefits another, altogether quieter, national campaign took off last week here in the UK at our most unsung of public services: libraries.

You can't imagine that Waterstones, WHSmiths, Amazon and others mind too much that libraries were forged from great social ideals. Not only is encouraging universal education and literacy good economically for society (potential talent can rise from anywhere to realise its potential and then productively benefit society) it's availability to serve as community hub, public space, creche and more to those without access to alternatives make it an all round force for social good. Investing equally in all, for the future of all, paid for from the wealth of all. But such aspirations are like, so last millennium. and the shiny new 'Big Society' has no need for such rubbish.

Across the country, councils faced with savage funding cuts are putting libraries top of their list of low hanging fruit and axing swathes of library services. According to this blog (http://publiclibrariesnews.blogspot.com/ ), at least 488 libraries are under threat.

In Lancashire, so far, the wholesale closure of libraries seems to be less under threat, but some significant cuts to services are being proposed, which include reducing mobile libraries and cuts to spending on magazines and daily newspapers. The Lancaster area lost three libraries back in 2006, thanks to Labour spending cuts.

  • On the cards is a reduction in the overall number of library staff employed within the service, equating to a 16% reduction by 2013/14. The County's proposal will reduce staffing levels and some service delivery within the library service "without the need to reduce opening hours or close libraries", they claim. In part the reduction reflects the "roll out" of self service facilities within libraries and a further review of management levels within the service. There would be less help and advice available to the public from trained staff.

  • The County Council has undertaken a countywide review of its mobile library service, and says it has identified that through more effective use of the fleet it is possible to reduce the number of vehicles from 11 to 9 without causing any reduction in the level of service (a proposed saving, outlined in its spending plans that will save them £35,000 a year).

  • An 11% cut in library resources is being proposed, which means the amount spent on buying hard copy reference books, magazines and newspapers. The Council argues that, in line with the service’s move towards online services, they have been developing an online reference library, which has many advantages, including the ability to deliver services across the whole network of libraries instead of relying on access to hardcopy books on shelves in a limited number of libraries. One of the effects of subscribing online to major reference sources, says the Council, is that instead of holding them in hardcopy is that prices are reduced overall. This would save some £60,000,

  • The Library service spends a proportion of its resources fund on the purchase of newspapers and magazines; the 2010/11 budget for this area is £86,000. They're proposing to reduce that fund by about a third, thus saving £29,000 in a full year. The County claims that while newspapers and magazines are very popular with readers, much of what is on offer is now available online. "Each of the national newspapers has an online site," they claim (ignoring the fact that several national newspapers now have a Paywall) and "in addition to the availability online of other major news broadcasters such as the BBC.
    Noting the proposal is going to annoy a lot of library users, they add "It would therefore be possible to review the newspapers and magazines purchased with a view to reducing expenditure by a third without any real loss of service." You have to wonder what bean counter is going to decide what newspaper or magazine is more important if they get their way, don't you...



Elsewhere in the country, Councils are offering the meagre crumb of offering to give over premises to volunteers to take over and run what non-funded services they can. Lancashire hasn't stooped to that yet, but you can bet they've considered it.

Despite the gargantuan sums of taxpayers money shovelled into the banks to stop them going bust (effectively later ending up as bonuses to smug bankers claiming they're successfully earning their way to 'recovery'), or the billions lost in cosy corporate tax-avoidance, or wasted on mega IT projects, it seems the government is happy to sit by and force councils to retreat from core social support and non life-essential services.

But the book-reading masses are queuing up to resist. A wave of imaginative actions in libraries have been taking place up and down the UK, instigated for the most part by some unlikely rebels when it comes to social protest.

Saturday 5th February saw a national day of action against the mass closures that are threatening nearly 500 services, including mobile libraries. Huge numbers of people came out in even the smallest of towns, many libraries seeing queues down the street with crowds of hundreds coming to max out their cards and make overdue demonstrations of visible support for these valuable institutions.

The turnouts were best attended by those which use the libraries most, families with young children and the elderly, with plenty of those on lower incomes - set to be some of the most affected by benefit cuts - and others who never use 'em but believe in the principle.

Most of the day's actions mirrored the work of borrowers in Stony Stafford, Milton Keynes back in January. There a library that holds more than 16,000 books was cleared of its stock in just a few days after a Facebook campaign called for local people to go in and take their maximum allowance. Aimed to highlight the massive hole that would be left in the community if Milton Keynes council went ahead with its plans to close the popular centre, it hit the national headlines and campaigns started to spring up all over the UK.

On the 5th, many libraries had visits from local writers and poets, including in Gloucestershire, where a battalion of seven 'Flying Authors' were jetting round the libraries of the county in not the greenest of actions, but certainly the most expensive. Entertaining people who'd turned up to support their local lender with stories, poems and songs, the seven managed to visit all thirteen centres in one day. Others had read-ins with their most famous local scribe or B-list celeb supporter.

Sheffield had a mass Shhh!-in at their city library attended by over 200 people. After a group exclamation of 'Shhh!' and three cheers for their library, people went and took out their allowance of 15 books each, leaving the shelves looking decidedly bare and the floor filled with people sitting down for an impromptu read-in.

Milborne Port library in Somerset was infiltrated by a phantom 'book snatcher' who went around grabbing books from reading people's hands, replacing it with signs saying things like 'illiteracy', 'poor life chances', and 'social isolation'.

People took to the streets in Scotland and Cambridge, with a group protesting outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and a flashmob in Cambridge reading aloud from their favourite books.

I hope the public keep on throwing the book at both their local Councils and the Government. Sadly, though, it would appear that when it comes to library services, the ConDems have simply picked up where Labour left off when it comes to library cuts - let's not forget that in the Lancaster area, the then Labour County Council voted to close several smaller libraries on cost grounds in 2006, with the County Councillor in charge of the action claiming libraries were "not important" (an then trying to cover his tracks, as I reported here at the time on virtual-lancaster.net).

Ironically, the champion of the libraries that were cut was Stuart Langhorn, now the Liberal Democrat leader of the local City Council. Let's hope he's working to resist cuts now.

The fact that sections of the poor, young, disabled, socially marginalised or even middle class will end up getting screwed when these libraries closed or their services slashed is tough.

Shhh...

• See http://publiclibrariesnews.blogspot.com/ for a map of libraries under threat from councilcuts and local campaign in your area.

• Lancashire County Council meets at 1.00pm on Thursday 17th February in Preston to decide whether to approve the cuts as laid out in its spending plans (PDF download), for a £71.7m saving in 2011-12, followed by a further £50m in 2012-13 and another £57.4m in 2013-14 - a total of £179.1m over the next three years. Protesters will rally at County Hall at noon.

• Visit the Lancaster & Morecambe Against the Cuts facebook group.
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