Monday, 25 September 2017

Why do we have to keep on saving the libraries? Sue Purkiss

I can’t think quite how many years it is since I first started making a fuss about libraries – it’s at least ten. Steve Barlow, of the Two Steves, who also lives in Somerset, had heard that cuts in funding to Somerset Libraries were affecting a service which was already among the worst funded in the country. So he suggested that as children’s authors, we ought to make ourselves heard – and together with Kathryn White, we did.

Well, to paraphrase the old saying – we hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet. Since those days, just about all the library managers we went to talk to have been made redundant or retired. There have been numerous reviews, all undertaken with a view to cutting costs. I remember a meeting very early on, where the idea of different services sharing premises with libraries was put forward. I was truly shocked when a fireman, a parent of young children, said that he couldn’t see the point of libraries – that he never read to his child because there were so many other things to do.

I don’t think he was typical. And most – though not all – of Somerset’s libraries are still here. But they’ve been pruned and pruned and pruned again, to the stage where everyone agrees that staffing levels can’t be reduced any further. In my own local library in Cheddar, the last round of cuts resulted in single working for part of the week - that is, one member of staff being on duty at a time. This is in a two storey building where the office and toilets and spaces for local groups to meet are upstairs, and the library is downstairs. The children’s library is at the back of the ground floor – it’s a lovely space, and like the rest of the library, it’s well-used. But it’s out of sight of the front desk, where that single member of staff may be taking in and stamping out books, explaining to a child and grandparent who have just joined up how to make best use of the library, signing another child up for the Summer Reading Challenge, helping an older person who wants to know how to get in touch with the Patient Group – and so on. I’m not exaggerating: this is how it is, I’ve seen it. And the staff members do all this with grace and patience. They do lots more too – the library hosts a number of local groups, and it has events, talks, and open days.

Here we all were, back in 2011, with Tessa Munt, our then MP, in the foreground.
But now, even more money has to be clawed back and so yet another review is taking place this autumn. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk to the Parish Council, to make sure they’re aware of the threat to the library and to enlist their support.

But why does this have to keep happening?

I could go on about the ancient library of Alexandria; about all the towns, like the one I come from in the industrial midlands, that benefitted from Andrew Carnegie’s generosity over a hundred years ago and were provided with libraries; about the thousands of children who benefit each year from the Summer Reading Challenge; about the elderly who go into libraries for a chat, to get help with new technology – and of course to take out the books which will take them into other lives, other worlds, which will make them think, keep their brains firing off sparks and making connections. But you know all this. The very fact that you’re here, reading a blog about books, means that you know how important books, and by extension libraries, are.

And it shouldn’t keep happening. The proportion of a council’s budget that goes on libraries is tiny. And anyway, for heaven’s sake, it’s a legal obligation that libraries must be provided: under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, local authorities have a statutory duty to provide ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library services.

It seems absurd to me that one of the wealthiest countries in the world says it can’t afford to provide a properly funded library service – in the grand scheme of things, it would cost peanuts. But then again, I was in a prosperous area of Bristol yesterday and saw people sleeping on the streets, and that seems even more absurd.

Still, it as it is. So here in Cheddar, as in so many other places where the library service faces ever-increasing cuts, we’ll continue to fight the good fight. Wish us luck!


Andrew Preston said...

Cheddar and the surrounding area is very much of the complexion that created the old joke..., They would vote for a monkey so long as it had a blue backside.

About a couple of weeks ago, I travelled by bus to Cheddar. Just outside the town, a woman boarded and sat down beside me. In due course the bus passed Cheddar police station. As we did so, the woman remarked to me... "That's closing, just like in Minehead...".

As part of my reason for going to Cheddar was to buy some food, and in particular, a couple of profiteroles with fresh cream, and we were only about 200 yards from my stop...., I kept my reply short.

"Well, if people want to see police stations and libraries closing, all they have to do is keep voting Conservative..".

Sue Bursztynski said...

You know, as children's writers you surely do school visits - private schools, mostly, because those are the ones that can afford to pay you. The parents might have some influence. Perhaps it might help to get their support? Talk about how important it is for EVERYONE to have access to a library?

Here, it's the schools that are losing their libraries - state schools, as the privates can afford to keep them well staffed - and teacher librarians are out. I'm about to retire and I won't be replaced. But I've been pleased when I've found how many of my students are members of the local library.

Food In The Vorkosiverse

Anonymous said...

When an authority claim they can't afford libraries, I always want to enquire how much they've been spending on things that are not statutorily required, and how they justify their decision to prioritise (legally) unnecessary spending over that which is legally required.

Of course, cuts to library services are sometimes nodded through because decision makers do not understand the nature and importance of libraries, or what makes a good library.

Anonymous said...

A huge proportion (well over 50% in my area) is spent on social care. Closing libraries is small beer compared to this. Unless there's a way to cut the social care bill it will only get more difficult for services like libraries to be maintained.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for your continued fight.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I despair when councils cut services and appoint a well known and trained senior librarian in Children's Services to the job of Customer Services. What a seam of knowledge and expertise unmined and lost to so many children and their parents. What a complete waste of talent and tax payers money!

Sue Purkiss said...