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Free Public Libraries! We’re all Victorians now

Photo by Rich Grundy
Photo by Rich Grundy

The past is closer than we think. It’s easy to forget that public libraries haven’t been around that long. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 gave councils the right to establish free libraries in their areas. But many obstacles had to be overcome before the legislation of 1964 imposed on councils a statutory obligation to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ enabling the likes of you and me to go to a building in our local area and come away with a stash of fresh reading matter.

I’m particularly aware of this because my great-great grandfather, Thomas Greenwood, was a leading figure in the Victorian public library movement. In the 1880s, despairing of the fact that fewer than 50 libraries had opened across England, he published an influential manual on how to set up and run a public library. The preface to ‘Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses, and Management’ argues that every community should have a public library because ‘Book hunger presents a demand as clear, as definite, as the cry for good drainage and good water’.

A social reformer typical of his age, Greenwood was making the point that access to knowledge and culture were essential for a member of a civilised society. Surviving and thriving was not just about the body; mind and spirit needed feeding too. In the late nineteenth century, this kind of thinking still involved breaking new ground: education (until the age of ten) was only made compulsory in 1880. My great-great grandfather’s call for public funding for libraries – ‘a penny on the rates’, as he put it – met with fierce opposition from his conservative contemporaries. Being obliged to pay for books for the poor, they felt, amounted to theft through taxation.

Reading his book while doing some research into my nonconformist ancestors, I was struck by how little, a century and a quarter on, things have changed. Of course, there is now a social consensus that libraries, rather like motherhood and apple pie, are A Good Thing.

But in real – that’s to say, political and financial terms – public libraries have become one of the battlefronts of the Great British Recession. They were among the first areas to suffer cuts; I remember reporting on reductions to library services back in 2008. Their prominence in lists of proposed cuts caused some to wonder whether councils considered them soft targets, at least until they discovered that communities were prepared to create uproar to save them.

Some seven years on, over a third of libraries in the UK have closed. But it’s a statistic, as Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News points out, that fails to convey the extent of the decline in the service.

‘The number of libraries being closed is actually misleading – the battle for library buildings has been won,’ he says. ‘The battle against hollowing out what lies in those buildings is being lost. And, all the while, those who have never used libraries are less and less likely to go in and use them, or are turned off when they do, due to lack of investment and promotion.’

The results is a reduction in the numbers of libraries users which helps to justify further cuts. One piece of recent research found that the number of people visiting a library a year had fallen by 40 million over the past four years, a sharp decline that is particularly marked in deprived areas.

‘Investment in staff and books are being continually scaled back,’ adds Anstice. ‘This means that English libraries are a pale imitation of the wonders seen in other countries such as the USA, Australia or in Scandinavia where library usage is as high as it has ever been.’

Ironically, de-investment in libraries has involved a huge investment of time and energy from both sides. Yet the savings seem disproportionate to the costs – the recent, defeated proposal to close seven of Cardiff’s libraries would have saved only £283 000. A lot of money to you and me, but peanuts out of a total budget of £547 million. And what was the cost of all the meetings and documents that went into proposing cuts that won’t happen?

Why is so much effort being poured into the preservation/ dismantling of the library service? Part of the answer, I think, must be that The Battle for Britain’s Books is about more than saving money or buildings. It’s about a shared understanding that as a society, we have got to a point where everyone has the right to participate fully in the cultural life of the nation. In other words, everyone has the right to a life of the mind.

And if you have access to experiences beyond your own – other people’s ideas, histories, stories, values, the key word here is ‘other’ – might you start to question those of your own society, to consider how things could be different, better? For there is something inherently counter-cultural about books: in the early days of printing, a person sitting alone reading was regarded with suspicion. In Britain, it took a religious as well as technological revolution to establish the principle that people had the right to read the scriptures for themselves.

Historically and globally, books seem to incur a kind of iconoclastic rage. Think the destruction of Buddhist texts in twelfth-century India, of libraries in World War II and of books in Iraq’s Library of Mosul by Islamic State earlier this month. Here are some depressing highlights of what authorities through the ages have done to destroy books.

I offer this as a thought rather than a thesis, and I’m certainly not accusing council politicians or officials of burning books. But it’s important to recognise that in the book battle of our time, wider forces at work than the size of budgets and books as physical objects. These days I better understand the connection between my great-great-grandfather’s nonconformity and his campaigning for public libraries and I’m proud of what he did. He was striving to create ‘free’ libraries in more than one sense.

So let us remember: as the ancestors of the near-future, we need to make those who come after us proud.