Illustration: SI Mitchell
Why are libraries important?
Libraries are one of the UK’s most popular institutions. You can borrow books and CDs for free. You can do your homework there and get help. You can get advice browsing and selecting the right book. You can get help with research and information. Libraries have computers and give training in how to use them. They are important community hubs with meeting places and all kinds of activities for all sections of the community.
How have they been useful to you?
When I was young I used to borrow three books a week from my local library to feed a voracious reading habit. It helped to get the son of a factory worker and shop assistant to university. There I used the library again for research and to broaden my knowledge.
What legal rights do libraries have to stay open?
Libraries have a degree of legal protection under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. Among its provisions is the requirement on local councils to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service. Unfortunately the Act does not make clear in details what this means. The Charteris Report, written when the then Labour government halted Wirral’s library closure programme, gave some pointers, for example stressing provision for the young and the elderly. Two recent legal cases have left the situation relatively open for debate. Campaigners in Somerset and Gloucestershire won a victory when the judge stopped the closure programmes there because the councils had ‘lacked adequate consideration of equalities issues.’ The judge described the councils’ behaviour as ‘bad government.’
Other campaigners in Brent lost their case, but may be taking it further. There may be other cases in Surrey and Bolton.
When did you get the idea for National Libraries Day and what do you hope to achieve by it?
In addition to the many campaigns across the country fighting closures and reduced services I thought it was important to put a positive case for the public library service. In February 2010 we organised 110 Read-Ins across the UK attended by around 10,000 people. It seemed a good idea to organise a National Libraries Day encompassing all the pro-library organisations around that date every year. Essentially, we want to raise the profile of the work libraries do.
How will libraries be celebrating the day?
In the week running up to Saturday 4 February many school libraries will be holding events. Many public libraries are holding events, opening longer and recruiting new members. National bodies such as CILIP and the Society of Chief Librarians are coordinating activities. We see National Libraries as a positive day of celebration to promote the whole culture of reading for pleasure, information and engagement. It is time to make reading a universal culture.
The usual argument with regards to cuts is that the arts aren't as important as, say, health. How do you respond to such criticisms?
This is essentially a divide and rule strategy asking how people can worry about libraries when life and death services are under pressure. In any decent society we would democratically decide our priorities. If one of those priorities isn’t the ability to read for information, pleasure and education we have become a meaner and poorer place.
How important is postal code in determining cuts?
The key issue here is the local council leadership. Councils have a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. Some of them have done a good job in protecting library services. Indeed some councils have opened new libraries or refurbished existing ones. In other areas up to half the branch libraries are up to threat.
It doesn’t sound good…
Across the country there is a process of ‘hollowing out’ the library service. This consists of making library staff redundant, reducing opening hours, cutting the book fund, even closing libraries. Some of the worst areas have been Oxfordshire, the Isle of Wight, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Brent, Lewisham, Doncaster and Bolton though campaigns and court cases have forced rethinks in some of these localities. In Nottingham three libraries are to close and two to open. Thirteen face reduced opening hours. In Nottinghamshire opening hours are being halved from 601 hours a week to 311.
What can libraries do to become a more integral part of the community?
The most important things libraries can do is to take steps to attract the public. This means good quality services, a better book stock, good ICT provision, comfortable, welcoming buildings and helpful, well-trained staff. Much of this depends on resources and strategic planning. The kind of ill-considered, crude savings-driven cuts that are happening around the country puts this kind of vision in danger. While libraries and library staff can do their best to improve the service to their customers within funding constraints, they need the support of the councilors.
What can the government do to support them?
The government, through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has effectively abdicated responsibility for libraries, frontloading cuts but failing to provide any strategic leadership. Even when it knew that councils in some areas were failing to meet their statutory duties it did nothing to rein them in. Campaigners will be giving evidence to the forthcoming Select Committee calling on the DCMS to provide proper leadership and set minimum library standards for councils and look to make savings in areas which will impact least on the public.
Does digital technology simply make the demise of libraries inevitable?
E-books are another form of reading, not the negation of reading. Libraries already provide computers and computer education. Facilities are being developed to download e-books in libraries. Libraries are doing their best to meet the digital challenge, but for them to do it adequately there has to be national leadership. This isn’t coming from the DCMS. The libraries of tomorrow will evolve, but they can't do that if the libraries today are closed or downgraded.
What can people do to support libraries?
People can join the various campaigns to save their local library. They can join user groups. Maybe most important of all they can make sure they use their library on a regular basis. It is not an empty statement to say ‘use it or lose it’.
National Libraries Day website