Monday, 12 December 2011

The Power of Words

I live in Gloucestershire, and recently the courts told my county council that they needed to rethink their library policy on equality grounds. The excellent Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries fought long and hard to get this result, which was won on the very thing that was closest to our hearts. Now, for a little longer the elderly users of the mobile library van service, and the many children in deprived areas of this diverse county will still be able to enjoy their local libraries. For how long we don't know, and recent developments aren't exactly heartening. We don't want more precious money thrown away on court cases, but we do want the vulnerable protected.

In a city in the USA my granddaughter and her parents recently joined their local library. At the entrance were notices asking the customers if they'd like to vote for a few cents more to be allocated from the local council budget to the libraries in the area. Usage was steadily growing, and the extra money would enable the service to be improved.

I was quite taken by the idea of voters being able to make such choices. It's interesting to speculate what the outcome would have been if our local council had asked the electorate the same question. Funding comes from several sources at my grand daughter's library. State and county both contribute, and the library isn't too proud to ask for donations either. In fact, they explain on their website which of the libraries they run will accept what sorts of books, and in which languages. But it's not all good in the US. We in the UK aren't the only country with library funding problems.

I don't know enough about the system in the US, but it seems to me that we in the UK need to look at more than one model of provision to give libraries the best chance. A US company ISS, which runs some privatised libraries in the States, has just announced that its stated intent of doing the same in England had been put on the back burner, because it seems we in England aren't ready for privately run libraries. Probably not, even if they would still be 'free'. But maybe we ought to consider more possibilities. I don't think volunteer run libraries are the answer either, but then maybe there simply isn't a suitable one size fits all.

The members of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have fought a wonderful rearguard action, to force the council to deliver on its statutory duty, and deserve high praise, but the library service has been underfunded for years. I am hoping that the committee to look into library provision, which was at last announced by the government, will consult and consider as widely as possible, but I'm not hopeful that it will come up with any exciting ways in which libraries can become the vibrant, well stocked places they ought to be, with wide appeal. The very real threat is that councils will tidy up their act, do just enough to be legal, and still find ways to close them.

Meanwhile, across the channel too, books are under threat. I recently signed a petition to the French government asking them not to raise the VAT on books from 5 to 7.50%.

The VAT levied on ebooks in Britain has me worried. How long will it be before some bright spark in government decides that if you can tax digital words without anyone objecting, why not printed ones? And as the French experience shows, once a tax is applied it becomes very tempting to raise it when times are hard. The written word is having a difficult time, and I don't think we can relax yet.

Yet it's not all bad. Libraries are being supported by a vociferous, well informed group of people, many of whom don't actually need to rely on the service, but still understand that for a nation to be fully inclusive, information must be freely and easily available to all, from the smallest child, through the homeless, and unemployed, to the elderly, and everyone else in between. And with youth clubs, pop in centres and other valued places at risk, where better than local libraries to take up some of the slack?

There have been some wonderfully imaginative celebrations of libraries, witness this in Scotland, and appreciated far beyond our shores. Sometimes it's hard to be optimistic, but people like the library phantom raise my spirits, and remind me that we can't give up now. One battle has been won, but the war is still being waged. And the weapons we have are words.


JO said...

Those of us in Wiltshire have been cheering you on, and learning a lesson or two. Thanks for all the hard work you have done - not only for Gloucestershire, but also on behalf of us all. You have created a precedent, and it will be harder for other counties to take a scythe to their libraries now.

Cindy Jefferies said...

Thank you Jo! Let's hope so.

Abi Buringham said...

Well done, what wonderful work by Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries. It is worrying isn't it? Our world of books seems to be being clobbered from all angles. The US model is interesting and I agree with you, maybe this is the time for Councils to re-think. One thing's for sure, we need libraries!

June said...

I cheered when the news came through about the courts decision on Gloucester Libraries. We all need libraries in the community. They are a social hub for many kinds of use.

One small point... the posted link to the Friends of Gloucester Libraries article is failing. Too many HTTP bits and no www!