Rarely have British libraries faced greater challenges. It is fashionable to call the presence of multiple problems a perfect storm. It is an apt, if overused, metaphor for the predicament in which libraries and librarians find themselves. Within living memory the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act appeared to guarantee their future as a free, universal service. It ushered in a period commonly known as the ‘golden age’ of libraries. The sixties saw spending grow by half and staffing by 40%. Though school libraries and school library services did not come under the aegis of the Act, they too tended to flourish in its wake.
The first major challenge to this apparent progress came with the public spending cuts of the eighties. By the late nineties many observers, including a DCMS report, were talking about a ‘service in crisis.’ A period of retrenchment was underway. Under the Tory and Labour governments of the era some branch libraries were closed and the number of professional librarians fell. Opening hours and book stocks were invariably a soft target for council savings. The weeds were beginning to appear in the garden but, with the onset of the great economic crash of 2008, the malignant growths have multiplied and threaten to choke the flowers to death.
The greatest threat came from last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review which set councils a target of cutting their budgets by 28% over four years, an unheard of reduction. New technology added a second challenge. Libraries had begun to meet it with some confidence, but as usual there were philistines getting out their spades to bury the institution because ‘everything is going digital’, even though libraries were demonstrating in practice that it was possible to manage the older and newer reading technologies quite successfully. The third element of the perfect storm was what a recent parliamentary committee called ‘woeful’ leadership.
Those choking weeds are now bearing a poisonous fruit. The new government has pushed libraries to the front of the queue for cuts, which have been ‘frontloaded’ as managerial speak so wretchedly puts it. In areas such as Oxfordshire, Doncaster, Barnet, Suffolk, Somerset, North Yorkshire and Gloucestershire half or more of the branch network could lose funding. The Isle of Wight would be left with just two libraries. Book funds are being slashed, by 75% in the case of Nottinghamshire. Staffing is being cut. The government believes that volunteers and Big Society providers can fill the vacuum left behind, but taking over a library is not just a matter of getting a few friends together as Jim Brooks, Chairman of the Friends of Little Chalfont Community Library, in Buckinghamshire explains in an interesting article here:
“Andy Burnham’s refusal to take action in the Wirral effectively renders the 1964 Public Libraries Act meaningless. While it is local authorities’ responsibility to provide libraries, the Act very clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary’s door. If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless.”
Andy Burnham eventually changed his mind about Wirral, saving the libraries. Unfortunately, Ed Vaizey also proved capable of changing his mind. There are now many Wirrals. At the time of writing 375 libraries are under threat. It is not just the public library service that is feeling the swish of the grim reaper’s scythe. School libraries have closed and so have School Library Services. All three arms of the British library structure are facing something of a crisis.
I first became aware of the gathering storm in July, 2008 when I was invited to address a protest meeting in Doncaster, organized by the local Save Our Libraries group. The council was cutting 32 jobs, 35% of the book budget and making £600,000 of savings. The director pushing through the measures justified them by saying: “People can buy all the books they need at Tesco.” It was a sign of things to come. Along with Michael Rosen, Philip Pullman, Melvin Burgess, Robert Swindells and many more authors I protested to Mayor Winter about the proposals. Within months the Meadows School in Chesterfield made librarian Clare Broadbelt redundant and closed the library. I organized a second round of author protests and the Campaign for the Book was born.
In December we faced our first huge test, one that united the book world in its indignation at the new era of philistinism. Wirral council on Merseyside, a Labour/Lib Dem administration was planning to close eleven of its libraries with very little consultation and with no clear strategy for the future of its library service. There were protests from Cilip, the trade unions, authors and library users. A 1,000 strong march wound its way through Birkenhead. I wrote an Open Letter to Culture Minister Andy Burnham on February 11th. On the 21st he said he was ‘not minded’ to review the Wirral cuts.
The broad coalition of opposition to the closures refused to lie down. A local solicitor sought a judicial review. Still the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was unmoved. On March 27th Junior Minister Barbara Follett repeated the mantra that the DCMS was ‘not minded’ to step in. We resorted to the tactic of appealing under the 1964 Act. By April 4th Andy Burnham was the first Minister since 1991 to intervene. He commissioned a report by Sue Charteris and the eleven libraries won a reprieve. Around the same time campaigners were successful in keeping open Old Town library in Swindon. We had won a significant victory that we celebrated at a Campaign for the Book conference in 2009 in Birmingham. Everybody had played a part, the Library Campaign, ourselves, the trade unions, Cilip and the local people in the Wirral where there were huge protests.
There were other elements of progress. Representatives of Cilip, the SLG, YLG, the Campaign for the Book and the School Library Association met to press the case for statutory school libraries. The School Libraries Commission chaired by Baroness Morris highlighted the worth of the school library. Sadly, the fallout from the banking crash overshadowed every forward step we took. Campaigners had demonstrated a new vigour in raising the profile of libraries. We had won a victory in the Wirral. The next time around however we would be fighting many such battles simultaneously.
This is the context. There is another sub-text however. Never has a coordinated and integrated library service been more relevant and necessary. This year’s PISA survey has placed the UK in 25th place in international comparisons of reading standards. Ten years ago we were in seventh place! The report’s authors identified the lack of reading for pleasure among teenagers as a major factor in our relative decline. In other words, at the very moment the case for reading and libraries is becoming more urgent, the political class is driving ever more disproportionate and damaging cuts. Figures such as Desmond Clarke and Tim Coates are pointing at issues such as overheads as important in any discussion of alternatives to closure.
The government continues to pursue its cost-cutting measures at a breakneck pace. The ‘bonfire of the quangoes’ has already done for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, transferring its powers to Arts Council England. It has rejected the case for statutory school libraries. Enthusiasts for libraries are refusing to go quietly into that good night however. At the time of writing activists in several areas are planning legal challenges under the 1964 Act. Others are organizing protests, petitions and Read Ins. Thee is even a call for a national inquiry into the programme of closures. The last Open Letter against library closures had well over 1,000 signatories including the likes of Lee Childs, Carol Ann Duffy, Bonnie Greer, Terry Jones and Michael Holroyd. Never have the pressures been greater, but never have advocates of books and libraries been more resourceful, imaginative, determined and successful in arguing their case in the media and out in the community. How this situation pans out will determine the quality of reading and information services in the UK for many years to come.
Alan Gibbons is an author and organizer of the Campaign for the Book. His blog www.alangibbons.net acts as a forum for library campaigners and book lovers.