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Library staff act for service


Librarians, library assistants, and others who work in the country’s network of public libraries are combining with those who use their services to stop closures, and job losses.

At the Public Library Authorities conference in Liverpool in October Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, announced a government review of public libraries to “modernise” them. Burnham, along with the new minister with responsibility for libraries, Barbara Follet, claimed that the review would look at, among other things, creating a “skilled and responsive workforce”, government-speak for deskilling the workforce.

Funding will be reduced while libraries are exhorted to find “innovative partnership and funding models”, code for replacing areas for stock and readers with franchises for giant corporate coffee chains, following the example of Conservative-controlled Hillingdon council. Public libraries will also be encouraged to accommodate adult learning.

This apparently innocuous idea results from the government’s onslaught on adult education classes in further education. By 2010 students on adult education classes will have to pay fees set at a rate of 50 per cent of the actual cost of the course. As FE colleges close adult education classes wholesale, the public library will be expected to take up the slack.

Just as Burnham announced the government review, a group of MPs, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries, Literacy and Information Management, announced their own inquiry into the public library system and, in particular, its ‘governance and leadership’. Its findings are unlikely to differ radically from the government’s. There is unanimity among politicians: the access to knowledge and culture that libraries offer must go.

In public libraries, hundreds of professional librarian posts have been lost since 1997 and branches closed in a wave of restructurings, though some local battles have been fought and sometimes won to keep services. In May CILIP, the professional association for librarians, reported on ten authorities where the decline had been most acute: Cumbria, Dorset, Dudley, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Hillingdon, Kent, Lambeth, Medway and Northumberland.

Branch closures, loss of jobs and handing-over of services to self-appointed voluntary groups led CILIP to warn that standards of service were being worsened. Labour and Conservative councils have vied with each other to see which can come up with the most bizarre and unsuitable ideas for “modernisation”.

The institution of the public library, the basis of which was won, as with so many of our class’s achievements, in the mid-nineteenth century, represents communal, shared access to knowledge. It is a vital part of British working-class culture.