“If it bleeds, it leads,” is proved by the awful headlines splashed across the news daily – but the terrible bleeding away of the public and school library services seems to be almost invisible.
There’s no gory red stuff on show, no heart-rending images to display, so even as financial axes have been slashing and cutting - and are now being freshly re-sharpened, there’s little response in the news media.
Library cuts don’t make for sustained headlines or passionate press campaigns. Even the reports on cuts to Birmingham’s showcase library – the one that was supposed to be the glory of that authority’s much pruned provision - had a world-weary touch of “what else did you expect?”
In honour of the Great Austerity, central government cut all regional funding so steeply that councils have little money to support essential services. However, because the funds are now in regional and local hands, the government can raise its political eyebrows and say it’s not their fault when those cuts hit home. With community centres, care of the elderly and more being hacked away, the idea of a library service comes across as almost luxurious. Books rather than bedpans? Pages of text rather than playful toddlers? You elistist!
There have already been cuts and casualties: the closure of 324 libraries, the handing over of 400 more to volunteers, and the loss of 6,000 staff jobs since 2011 - and probably many more. Statistics have a way of being out of date by the time they appear. However, the cuts planned for 2015 – possibly concealed by both the noise and the silence leading up to the election – will be truly severe.
Furthermore, librarians are not, I heard elsewhere, allowed to comment on the matter. Most I know are desperate to keep their library services running in a positive way - but how hard to do that against the onslaughts of rationalisation; hours reduced means usage reduced means less need. Isn't that how it works?:
Visiting my local library, in the centre of a prosperous conference town, as well as the “middle class readers”, I see elderly people on their own, families with young children, students working at the few tables, newly arrived immigrants and more: people to whom the library service is essential.
Lucy Mangan, writing recently in the Guardian, mentioned the Independent Library report that Ed Vaisey – not a name trusted by many – commissioned a couple of years ago. He asked William Seighart to investigate the current state and possible future of libraries. According to this report, 35% of people in England use their local libraries, rising to 50% among poorer and immigrant groups.. The report points out that “The [socioeconomic] AB group, who run the country and the media, don’t use libraries. They do not understand how vital they are, or how many social problems they deal with.”
Hooray for Lucy for even writing about libraries, though she suggests a far more optimistic picture of the future library service than I’m witnessing. Meanwhile, too many of the pitilessly bright political and media folk seem to be giving a cultural shrug, happy to disregard the damage being done to the libraries. After all, there’s still the London Library isn’t there? And everyone has wikipedia on the computer at home, don’t they? Or is there, somewhere, a belief that stripping the library service of its assets until it is unsustainable is a valid thing to do? Or is this another version of “the poor don’t deserve libraries” attitude of the past? What do you think of that, Andrew Carnegie?
Of course, damage isn’t called damage. It is presented as a “new model”, given a fresh positive spin. Here in North Yorkshire, people are being “consulted” about new library service proposals, because by 2020 this County Council’s library budget will be half what it was in 2010. How about where you live?
I, being lucky, live near what is proposed as the “core” library for my district. (Less lucky are the many library staff losing their jobs under these proposals.) There will be one core in each of the seven districts of this large and often rural county, acting as an “engine”; advising the remaining libraries, says the document.
What “remaining libraries”? Five “hybrid” libraries will remain in towns where there are large and busy daytime populations. Each will have access to a librarian but be run by volunteers. Will the librarian be based at the library? Not necessarily. Is this one of the now very few librarians back at the core? Yes.
The rest will remain, but not as we know them. They will be become twenty “community libraries”, where not only the running but the cost of maintaining the building will fall on the local users and fund-raisers and these will be staffed by volunteers. Not surprisingly, these smaller libraries are mostly in rural and poorer areas of the county.
In addition, everyone who fills in the form is asked to tick the “volunteer” box, because that is how libraries will be run in the future. I have to say that, looking ahead, my heart sinks. Volunteers are good-hearted, capable people, eager to help when it doesn’t inconvenience them or interfere with the other, very real demands on their time. How will the leadership & structure work out among these often strong-minded people? Who will tell who what to do once the librarians have gone? Where will the responsibility lie? What about the maintenance of these community buildings a few years on? And who will cough up the money for replenishing book stock – a subject that is hardly mentioned in all the proposals? (Reduce stock, reduce use, reduce “need: that useful model again.)
This is my example, but I know the same is happening all across England and Wales. Truly, I fear that once the dynamic central expertise has disappeared, the whole library system will be so weakened it will fade.
Of course, then it will cease to be a bother. Proof again, no doubt, that the people just do not deserve libraries. Besides, as many young people probably won’t have had librarians or libraries in their schools, they won’t feel the loss anyway. Job done, eh? Spit spot.
Oh dear. 2015, what bodies will you bring? Maybe if there was blood on the carpet, the media would notice. Where’s Professor Plum with the hammer when you need him?
Otherwise, Happy New Year!
(Money for fireworks but not libraries, eh?)