Defend every library

Update, 7th March. Liverpool City Council vote to close libraries.

In many places across Britain public libraries, curiously, are at the front of the queue when ‘austerity measures’ are up for discussion. Liverpool, European Capital of Culture in 2008 remember,  is sadly no exception.

The wonderful new Central Library in Liverpool. opening in May 2013.
The wonderful new Central Library in Liverpool. opening in May 2013. But will the cost of it be used as an excuse to close local libraries?

This morning the Liverpool Echo reported this, from Liverpool Town Hall:

“The council then went on to rubber-stamp the series of cuts.

The city currently has 19 libraries, but the council thinks it can save around £938,000 (from April next year) by closing around 10.

It is examining plans to keep a seven-day service at Central Library and at two community libraries (one in the North and another in the South).”

This follows a leaflet last week from Liverpool City Council telling us that because the Government’s ludicrous ‘austerity’ plan (which you’ll remember excludes penalising the banks, who caused the financial crisis) requires them to find £149m in savings between now and 2017, they’re ‘considering’ cuts in the Public Libraries service, ‘as one of the key options’ that will save them £1m.

The leaflet isn’t clear whether this is a total saving or annual. But even if it’s annual, £4m out of the £149m they’re looking for isn’t much from a ‘key option’ is it?

Budget News, from Liverpool City Council.
Budget News, from Liverpool City Council.

Here are the details, such as we have:

“One of the key options put forward in this tranche of budget savings is a review of libraries and the introduction of a ‘hub and spoke’ model from 2014/15. This follows the opening of the brand new Central Library which the Council has committed to running at a cost of almost £2m per year. The PFI (Private Finance Initiative) contract for the library was signed in 2009 before the austerity measures began, and is repaid in the same way as a mortgage over the next 25 years.

Consultation will be held over having a smaller network of library buildings and some services may be delivered by other organisations from 2014/15. The service will also place more of an emphasis on digital access, with library members able to download books online.”

Next, the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, tells us:

“Closing libraries is something we never want to do. However, although there will be some closures, significant investment in our libraries will continue, with a total of £10 a year being spent on their operation.”

Other potential savings in the leaflet, mostly to services for the old or the young, seem to add up to a further saving of about £8.5m over the four years. So if the Council are looking for £149m they’ve clearly got a long way to go.

Allerton Library. Under threat?
Allerton Library. Under threat?

And anyway, where am I going with this, you’re probably wondering by now?

Well I’m not principally blaming the Council. We’ve had hard times imposed on us and like them, I’m hoping the austerity policies will be overturned by something more economically sensible before the country is brought to its knees.

But I do love libraries and I want to speak up for every single one of them before such a relatively tiny saving is made. Because it looks like libraries might have been chosen as a ‘key option’ because they’re a soft option. Because no immediate suffering appears to be caused.

Well let’s look at that one. Public libraries have been a deep source of joy to me all of my life and continue to be. Because I love to read and learn and am constantly curious . And whenever I go into my local libraries in Allerton or Wavertree they seem to be full of people much like me. Not soft-touch middle-class enclaves to be firmly, if regretfully, pushed aside. But a key part of what makes living in Liverpool so wonderful for all of us.

Norris Green library, under threat?
Norris Green library. Under threat?

And in a way, more wonderful when times are tight. The books I currently have out on loan would have cost me £75 to buy. I couldn’t afford that at the rate I read. And anyway I don’t want to own them. I never have. I want to borrow them and pass them on. Call me a sentimental old socialist but that the way I’ve always been.

Also, libraries seem to be where many people access the internet. That bit of the room is always full when I pass. So if the local library went where would these people go? Maybe nowhere? Locked out of one of the key ways we find out information, educate ourselves, and even communicate with government agencies these days. Seems wrong. Seems anti-democratic.

Toxteth library. Under threat?
Toxteth library. Under threat?

And what about the future? Being able to read is a core skill for functioning in our economy and yet the National Literary Trust says that 16% of adults in England are ‘functionally illiterate’. While they find children’s literacy has been gradually improving, all literacy levels can’t help but be damaged by reducing access to the easiest and most local source of new and interesting things to read. Impoverishing not just people’s lives but also our ability as a city and a country to run a creative economy in the future. Seems very short-sighted.

Maybe it could even be taken as poor leadership masquerading as strong leadership. Joe Anderson again:

“I know that some people will be extremely unhappy. I understand that because I am angry too. But leadership is about making tough choices and I will not back away from facing up to the challenge, and doing everything I can to mitigate the impact. It may mean people travelling further to get to one of our libraries…But I hope fair minded people will understand this is preferable to leaving the most vulnerable without support.”

Well, as well as making tough immediate choices, the leadership of a city involves taking a balanced view of the long term effects of any decisions. And their effects on the quality of life here . How it is and will be growing up here and growing old here. And on what, in both the short and long terms, we’ll put up with and we won’t put up with.

And I don’t think it’s good enough to say people will just have to travel. Some can’t and some won’t. Either way the quality of life in our city will steadily decline as reading diminishes.

Sefton Park library. Under threat?
Sefton Park library. Under threat?

If we are beginning to turn our backs on public libraries I worry that we would be forgetting their importance in developing the democratic culture of our country. A country where all were encouraged to learn and where all were provided with these wonderful resources for their learning and pleasure. I worry that a society that is prepared to start turning its back on its libraries has passed its peak and is beginning a return to the days when good libraries were the preserve of the rich and privileged.

For me, public libraries are and have always been essentially cheap local services, where travel costs and distance weren’t an inhibitor to young or old or differently abled. Libraries are about serendipity. Where you call in, in the normal course of shopping and walking around the place where you live, and you find things. The book that made you think differently, the book that suggested your future, the book that just looked interesting but turned out to be by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, who you’d never previously thought you would like.

Everton library. Long closed.
Everton library. Long closed.

And libraries are principally about books by the way. I’ve read a few ebooks and enjoyed them. But there was no real browsing or chance involved in downloading them. I knew what I was looking for. So for me, ebooks will always be additional to real books, found in, and borrowed from, a public library.

Nearly done now with this polemic. But as long time readers may know, I don’t feel just mildly sad about this ‘austerity versus public libraries’ issue. It profoundly enrages me. Libraries have always been such a low cost part of how we run our local governments. And picking on them for such tiny savings looks to me like more of a political statement than a financial one. Like saying they don’t matter to most people any more. When in fact they are at the core of our society and our democracy.

The future/ Buildings that used to be libraries?
The future? Buildings that used to be libraries?

So as gently as I can, as creatively as I can, but as determinedly as I can – I will engage with any discussions I’m invited to. I’m democratic to the core of my being, after all. But know this, I will be defending every library.

Because all of our children have the same rights as Jeanette Winterson had to find refuge, solace, hope and a sense of wonder and possibilities in her public library, in Accrington.

And all of our children have the same rights as I’ve had, all my life. To find what it’s like to live in a caring, democratic city and country, in all of my public libraries in and around Liverpool. And I’ll be defending every one of them.

Update, 7th March

Well, now the City have set out their intentions, to close 10 out of 19 and to have 6 of those remaining as part time libraries, we have a picture of the kind of place we might be living in. And my determination has only increased.

It’s simply not worth the damage it will do to save £938,000. And as Mandy Cheetham, a librarian says below ‘Historically, bad times have often resulted in a great surge of interest in public libraries.’ Because that’s when we need them most. To educate ourselves. To stay in touch with what’s happening. To look for work. To be part of preventing our lives from sinking into desolation. This decision is more political than financial and I don’t think we should meekly accept it as an inevitable result of austerity.

So today, even more determinedly than yesterday I say, defend every library.

See also Gerry’s post on ‘That’s How The Light Gets In’ for a full historic perspective on what’s looking like ‘a cultural catastrophe.’

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. Could not possibly agree more. And not just because a few of my best friends really are librarians. There are still so many people here in New England where I live who utilize our local libraries’ internet & computer resources, videos, DVDs, music, research, etc., etc., in addition to borrowing books. Our state also has now an online ebook & audiobook & music lending program, which is wonderful & I hope it grows. Public libraries help equalize access to resources in this economically unequal world. They help children learn, they help people out of work find jobs, they provide so much to us all.

    1. Thank you Kathi, libraries really are worth the determination to preserve. And I’m glad they do so much more than books. But books are their core. One library near to here has few books but lots of the other things you mention, so I hardly ever go there. Because it’s browsing through the books that I love.

      I just read this in a memoir called ‘Paperboy’ by Christopher Fowler:

      “The library directed children by encouraging them to browse. Without it, I would never have found the books I loved.”

      And I find that browsing is lost in ‘digital’ so far, for books and music. Steve Jobs tried it with Coverflow in iTunes, but we need something more tactile – scanning along book spines, flicking through LPs. The wow of discovery!

      1. That’s it exactly: screens with Internet access don’t replace libraries. A child alone with a screen or one pulling an interesting-looking book off a shelf in the local library?

  2. This shortsighted quick fix answer to hasty cost cutting on the part of local and national governmental officialdom, is sadly not a new phenomenen. Public libraries are always the first target in spite of being at the lower end of budget outlays.

    On the other side of the world and over the years of my working life I have experienced these directives to come up with ideas to cut services and indeed justify the need for public libraries. These campaigns have ebbed and flowed with changing economic times. Of course cost cutting measures in bad times ensure there will have to be a catch-up period in the good times.

    Historically, bad times have often resulted in a great surge of interest in public libraries. At the moment there is endless anxiety about how to deal with falling literacy rates, yet there is scant attention to the role public libraries play in bringing young children and books together. There has always been the worry that public libraries might become the domain of the dilettante who can afford to pay a subscription, or metamorphise into ‘quick-stop’ shopfronts that provide bestsellers, internet access and not much more. Although the subscription issue has been avoided due to wise legislation,other costs to users have crept in during times of austerity i.e. fines, reservations.

    No acknowledgement of the role public libraries play in providing for the educational, social and creative needs of everybody right through the lifespan is ever given due acknowledgement in cost cutting exercises. To take these basic rights away is an affront to our democratic rights.

    1. Well said Mandy, as a lifelong librarian in Australia you speak with heartfelt practical experience.

      ‘To take these basic rights away is an affront to our democratic rights.’ I agree with you completely.

      But as you’ll see from the update to the post, above, being an affront to our democratic rights isn’t stopping it from happening.

  3. Enraging indeed. I am with you in spirit, Ronnie, if not in body as you strengthen your defence.

    I remember, as a cash strapped single parent spending many a happy afternoon in the local library, just a pram’s walk away. Tiny as it was, it was full of literary treasures and got my kids interested at an early age in reading. They also put on some fab activities from time to time, during school holidays, for free.

    But ’twas ever thus. When times are hard, go for the soft underbelly, the easy targets, where it is deemed there will be little or no opposition. Where there seems to be unnecessary expenditure for intangible outcomes. No account is ever taken of the enormous value places like libraries give to communities, until they are not there any more. Places to read, meeting points, quiet spaces, information points, internet access, places to borrow books and other essential cultural things. They are accessible because they are local. Easy to reach on foot, by bike, and with a pram containing a child or two. When times are hard, we need more local facilities like this, not less. More places where people can learn in all sorts of ways. Where they can meet, exchange, get support. The shutting down of facilities like this can only drive areas further into ghettoisation.

    Man the barricades Ronnie! Keep the libraries open! I’ll keep reading to see what happens next…

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