Wilf Stevenson on the slippery slope of increased closures of community libraries
The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 places a statutory duty on library authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. Responsibility to fund and deliver libraries lies with councils, but the policy lead is vested in the Department of Culture Media and Sport.
Last year there were some 3,243 libraries in England, which attracted 256 million visits, and generating 244 million book loans. But these figures mask the fact that this is a service in crisis; one that is no longer ‘comprehensive and efficient’, despite demands being placed on it by communities which retain an appetite for reading.
According to the Libraries Minister, Ed Vaizey, about 60 libraries have closed since the government took office. But according to Voices for the Library, 201 library service points were closed last year. A further 336 are threatened with closure so far this year. And the Arts Council England, which has been given responsibility for libraries but no additional money, predicts a further cut of at least 40% by 2016.
The Library Campaign is the national group for library users. Its chair, Laura Swaffield, says: “Library users have appealed time and again to the minister to intervene against mass closures. He has a legal duty to ‘superintend and improve’ the service. But he does nothing.”
Libraries offer a lifeline to many people in need – especially those with no internet access, families with small children, those in education and older people. As has been said, Public Libraries are the last refuge of a civilised society. According to the Library Campaign, many communities are now trying to run their own, as the only way to save them. According to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, 13% of councils have set up community-managed libraries.
Handing over libraries to volunteers continues to divide opinion. In Doncaster, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Surrey, local campaigners have made legal challenges to changes in library policies. Public libraries are a huge asset to any community – as demonstrated by the numerous communities that have gone to great lengths to prevent local services from closing down. Only certain communities however, have the resources to effectively set up and run a library; and there must be a concern that the proliferation of these models could lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and underestimates their role in delivering an effective public service.
The experiences of existing community managed libraries demonstrate there are important lessons to be learnt, as well as difficult questions to be asked. Policymakers at both national and local level should take the opportunity to learn from these experiences, so that the library service can continue to be a thriving community resource.
These issues were raised in a recent DCMS Select Committee Report which said: ‘Councils which have transferred the running of libraries to community volunteers must above all continue to give them the necessary support, otherwise they may wither on the vine and therefore be viewed as closures by stealth’. Ministers must now say whether or not that is their plan. Our Libraries are too important to be neglected in this way.
Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow DCMS Minister in the Lords
Published 29th October 2013