Victory for the libraries in the High Court

29 November 11 words: James Walker
Don't give up on democracy just yet. A judge has just grown some ears


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If your library looked like this, would you be more likely to go ? 

It’s been a good month for libraries after the Somerset and Gloucester library closures were deemed ‘unlawful’ in the High Court. Gloucestershire proposed withdrawing funding from 10 of 38 libraries while Somerset went one higher. Judge McKenna ruled on 16 November that the respective councils failed to take account of their ‘equality duties’ when discharging their duties. But it gets better. Not only did he award ‘costs’ to the residents he also refused permission to appeal the decision.
He said: ‘In order to discharge their respective duties, Gloucester County Council and Somerset County Council should have undertaken a sufficient and thorough information-gathering exercise and then properly analysed the data. In this case I conclude both [councils] failed to comply in that obligation.’ Daniel Carey, who represented the residents, commented that the ruling sends a clear message ‘to every council in the country that catering for the needs of the vulnerable must be at the heart of every decision to cut important services such as libraries.’ Wow. So we do live in a democracy after all. Literacy is finally being recognised as an essential skill needed to live a successful - or at the very least, equal - life. 
There’s been a lot of divide and rule recently, with the usual emotive arguments claiming libraries aren’t essential in comparison to say, the NHS. The issue isn’t which service is more worthy it’s about the basic needs of a community. Health and education are two sides of the same coin, particularly as the Human Development Report calculates the percentage of people lacking functional literacy skills as one of the variables determining the Human Poverty Index in developed countries. Between 1994 and 2003 a staggering 21.8% of 16-65 year-olds were classified as functionally illiterate in the UK. A sceptic here would say, well then, libraries aren’t important as way before the cuts the problem was more endemic. Or, it could raise the question that there is a greater need for libraries to be involved in communities to help support schools in reducing this shameful statistic. Let us not forget that the library is not just about supporting literacy. It’s a place of ideas. The real challenge is getting this across to the public so that it becomes an invaluable commodity.          
This may be at the heart of the Media, Culture and Sport select committee’s decision to scrutinise the library sector. The Inquiry could see Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey investigated by the likes of author-turned-politician Louise Mensch (Bagshaw – if you’re wondering) This is a great opportunity to redefine libraries for the 21st century with submissions and views being requested by a deadline of 12 January 2012. However, we shouldn’t get too excited just yet. Nothing was done about the findings of the last inquiry (2005).
So what do readers think of libraries and more importantly, how can they become a more integral part of the community? What will make them sexy?

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