Determined campaigning by library workers and library users is showing that our public library system has a future, in spite of cuts and closures on a scale never seen before. Campaigning began late last year in many local authorities where public library services are threatened.
Every part of Britain is affected, from the allegedly affluent counties to towns and cities. Nearly 400 branches are to close across the country. Thus Doncaster proposes to close 14 libraries, Suffolk, the advance guard of the Big Society, to close 29 of their branches. In North Yorkshire 24 out of 53 will shut, in Lewisham 5, in Gloucestershire up to 18, and 6 mobile libraries will also disappear. In Cambridgeshire 19 will close and in Dorset up to 20 out of a total of 34.
Many authorities are also considering handing libraries over to volunteers to run, a solution that library workers warn will be unsustainable. Others are considering privatisation. But in Hounslow, where the services were handed over to John Laing two years ago, the new operators now intend to close up to 15 of the 17 libraries in the London borough. In the wings waits LSSI, an American company that is the fifth biggest provider of public libraries in the USA. LSSI’s Chief Executive was quoted last year as saying, “You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.” What he means is reducing staff and getting rid of unions.
Even more Byzantine solutions are proposed, including transferring libraries to private trusts. The Mayor of London has suggested that those libraries in London that individual councils want to cut could be transferred to Team London, a shadowy trust that is supposed to run the mayor’s volunteering and mentoring work.
The government hides behind excuses that library provision is the responsibility of local authorities, but one of the chief vehicles for their assault on the service is the so-called Future Libraries Programme. The Programme is in fact an express journey to the past, to the time before the 1850 Public Libraries Act made it possible for local authorities to make collective public provision. That Act gave people the cultural and educational opportunities offered by the documentary record of human knowledge and creativity.
Read-ins are being organised at a number of threatened libraries across the country on 5 February. Demonstrations outside and inside council meetings have shaken councillors who thought that in libraries they had picked a soft target; but library workers, users, publishers and booksellers are campaigning in a way never seen before.