The measure of a society is how it treats its libraries. ‘It just strikes me as something a nation can boast about – we lend people books for free,’ says James Brown in a swelte little anthology I’ve been reading called The Library Book, borrowed from my local, threatened
Upper Norwood Library.
Library services have been the low-hanging fruit of the recession. Over a third of UK libraries have closed since 2008, with councils blaming cuts by central government. Since library services aren’t ring-fenced, the 1964 legislation imposing an obligation on councils to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ has done little to protect them. Central government lays the responsibility at the door of councils: culture minister Ed Vaizy has an impressive track record of inaction, ignoring a number of local communities’ requests for intervention.
The 2015 budget has been even more revealing about government priorities. In an upbeat speech citing Britain’s rising fortunes, the chancellor announced a series of military giveaways: £7.5 million for events commemorating the two world wars, £2.5 million to renovate the RAF museum in Hendon and £1.3 million to rebuild a WWI airbase at Chelmsford. A further million has been set aside to rescue the Battle of Britain chapel at Biggin Hill from closure by the MoD.
Funding for the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, described by Osborne as the defeat of ‘an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists … well worth the £1 million we will provide to celebrate it’ sounds like blatant flag-waving.
Put that against the sums involved in running libraries – for £283 000 a year you get seven libraries in Cardiff – and you feel like putting in a Freedom of Information request to find out the size of the government’s firework budget for the war celebrations.
Whatever the result of the election, for libraries things are only going to get worse. The next round of cuts will bring more closures, even if Labour gets into (some) power. In a recent Twitter conversation shadow culture minister Chris Bryant avoided any kind of commitment, making vague noises about having a ministerial chair for the libraries task force and implementing the Sieghart Report.
Even the Greens seem to be part of the do-nothing political consensus about libraries. In response to questions from Leon Bolton, culture spokesman Martin Dobson conceded the party had little in the way of policy on libraries, despite the fact that Green Party supporters are often fervent library campaigners.
Do the politicians know what they’re doing? The decade 2008-2018 (the year when the current deficit-focused spending plans end) will see the dismantling of the national network of libraries that has put free books and a quiet place to read in the heart of every community. As I wrote in my last blog, this kind of provision hasn’t been in place very long: the public library movement that our Victorian forebears began only came to fruition with the 1964 Act. That it should have lasted so short a time and be extinguished so soon makes me sad.
It also calls to mind something else I read in The Library Book, this time from Manic Street Preachers lyricist Nicky Wire: ‘Ridding our villages, towns and cities of libraries, which are essential in shaping a nation’s consciousness, seems like a direct attack on the soul of the country.’