As someone who grew up in a home without books, no spare cash to buy them and no tradition of reading bedtime stories, my local library offered something unique and indispensable. It’s hard to think of anything that brought me more joy as a primary school-aged child than walking back from the Falls Road library in west Belfast with a bundle of books.
Having a library within walking distance of home was a way for a young girl from a poor background to access the same breadth of reading material as anyone else – at no expense. It stripped away at least some of the disadvantage that came with being from a low-income family. So every time I hear of another library closure – and there were more than 100 last year alone in Scotland, Wales and England, according to official figures – it hits a nerve. The loss of libraries is simply another surefire way to entrench inequality.
From providing books for people of all ages and backgrounds, to kids clubs and hubs for older people, to computer terminals that those with no access to the internet can use to find job vacancies, libraries are about as democratic and diverse as is possible to imagine. When properly funded and resourced they are educational and social anchors in communities everywhere. Yet, despite knowing all this, in the past five years the relentless funding constraints placed on local authorities have seen library budgets slashed by an astounding amount.
Over the course of the last parliament, cuts to services and closures amounted to a 16% reduction in library funding – a whopping £180m less than in 2010. As if that wasn’t enough, last month the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy questioned the long-term sustainability of council-run libraries after its latest calculations confirmed another £50m had been wiped from library budgets across England, Scotland and Wales in the previous 12 months.
The UK’s library service has for decades been one of its great, tangible symbols of social justice
Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) has warned that the billions of pounds of extra funding cuts for local authorities will mean another round of savage reductions in library services, and potentially a stark postcode lottery as councils in poorer areas feel they must jettison library services.
Cilip also pointed out (and this is something often missed when looking just at the numbers) that even where services are still running, many are hollowing out. Libraries are increasingly reliant on volunteers, for example. In fact, between 2009-10 and 2014-15 a quarter of all professional library posts (6,172) disappeared. In many libraries that have survived, book stocks are depleted, opening hours reduced and, in some cases, swipe card access used to save on staff costs.
There has also been a fall in library-run projects targeted at particular groups, including the most marginalised, according to a Cilip straw poll last year. Services designed for disabled people and other disadvantaged groups – the very people who benefit most from libraries – are at risk of further erosion.
Nick Poole, chief executive of Cilip, said libraries “have been seen as an easy target” but that cuts to frontline services are both misguided and short-sighted. “What we’ve got with regards to libraries is a systematic policy of neglect,” he said. Librarians and users have taken to the streets in protest against cuts, while Cilip has launched a campaign, My library by right, as well as a legal challenge to seek clarification of the government’s legal duty under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service. It has also launched a petition that has so far garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
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Nevertheless, libraries remain vulnerable. As the current financial year draws to a close, councils are finalising their budgets, an unenviable task in the current climate. The Department for Media, Culture and Sport insists libraries are modernising and new libraries are being built, for example, in Stafford and Camberwell. A spokeswoman told me that local authorities are repeatedly reminded of their statutory obligations. This is all well and good, but its easy to cherry pick. On the flip side Birmingham’s new multimillion pound flagship library announced last autumn that it would have to stop buying new books because of cuts. And is it really any wonder libraries are being sacrificed when councils are struggling to cover services such as social care?
There is so much more at stake than people not being able to take home some books. The UK’s library service has for decades been one of its great, tangible symbols of social justice and has adapted admirably to changing demand. It is something we should all stand up for, whether we use what’s on offer or not. I still have my first library card. What have we become if in the years ahead far fewer people are able to say the same thing?
By Mary O'Hara