Tuesday, 18 January 2011
Libraries under threat
If there is a single most depressing element to the present retrenchment and retreat of the British state, it's the threat to Britain's local libraries.
At least 375 are under threat - often in rural areas such as Gloucestershire where people will have to trek many miles just to take a book out.
They're not just storehouses of knowledge; arsenals of freedom and democracy themselves, I'd say, if I was being pompous. There's no doubt that they're vital to local communities, and as part of a vibrant and well-beloved arts sector very important indeed to Britain's regional economies. Local arts advocates in Lancaster, for instance, have estimated that the arts, theatre, dance, writing and drama boost the area's economy by £50m a year. This outstrips by a factor of ten the state money spent on those activities.
By the way, one interesting element of this is how citizens are resisting some of this using new technology - for instance, on this Welsh site that maps and tracks all the impact of the cuts. It's fashionable to sneer at 'web activism', especially after the apparent failure of the 'Green' or 'twitter' revolution in Tehran. But recent protests by students and young people against university cuts show that the implications are still working themselves out. They are certainly not going to be negligible. Just think: it's much easier to see the impact of government policies now just by poking around on the Web.
And what's often at their hub? Local libaries that have, in recent years, done everything they can to obey governments' wish that they become latte-sipping, all-singing and all-dancing 'knowledge hubs'. Most have been experiencing a rise, not a fall, in readership and usage. Now they're in for a kicking, in just the same way that British academics are about to suffer years of pain after running faster and faster to do everything governments told them in the name of 'research audits', 'widening participation' and 'pedagogical innovation'. Done all that? Now we're going to cut university budgets by 80 per cent, and local councils' budgets by up to 60 per cent.
Thanks a lot.
Of course, Ministers are keen for local libarries to be taken over by volunteers as part of the 'Big Society'. And there's probably something that can be done here to save money. But no-one really believes that cuts of up to a half in library budgets can be made up in this way. Perhaps smaller libraries will be open for half the week, staffed by volunteers, buying no new books. But a really vibrant, innovative, interesting and successful sector requries professionals. Certainly local examples of 'pub libraries', seized on by Coalitionistas, are pretty shoddy affairs fit only to supplement proper libraries.
It's all right for us academics. We can ask our university libraries to order books - or go to copyright libraries with our 'access all areas' staff passes. Other people aren't so lucky.
Know what you can do? Join a local group and protest. In Oxford, there's Save Our Services, with their innovative campaigning against library closures. Blackbird Lees, for instance, will lose its library under present plans. There's a petition form here.
Well, it's a start.