I was asked to write a guest post for the charity Living Streets, who are focusing on libraries this week. Originally posted here. We’ve also published a blog post about Living Streets on the Voices for the Library site.
524 libraries (463 buildings and 61 mobiles) are currently under threat or recently closed/left council control out of 4517 in the UK.
In many communities, libraries are the last remaining public space, where people can go without feeling pressure to buy anything or leave unless they have a specific purpose. People are free to browse, socialise, study and learn, in a neutral environment without feeling judged by the kind of book they’re reading or their level of computing skills, for example. On his blog, Kevin Harris says: “our libraries are one of the few things left that consolidate the public realm. Once they’re gone, it’s not just hard to get the library service back: it will be that much harder to reinstate the notion of publicness.”
Public library buildings tend to be owned by the council and are located on council-owned land. To close these branches and then sell them off or develop them for another use (housing, for example), equates to asset-stripping, and the communities who have seen the benefit of their council tax through local, accessible services see no benefit from the profit made.
To remove library branches may be seen by councils as a way of running a library service more efficiently – many local councils argue that it is more “viable” to run fewer, higher quality branches. This should not be an issue – communities will be paying the same rates for a service that is now further away from them, and in many cases, is impossible to get to. Many councils have failed to investigate whether it is possible for people to use their next-nearest library. In Doncaster, for example, the Mayor has recommended that residents of Bawtry travel to Tickhill instead. This library is over four miles away from Bawtry library, and there is no footpath down the busy main road, nor is there a direct bus.
Libraries are incredibly good value for the benefits they provide to society and individuals, in areas such as education, social cohesion, health and wellbeing, and as such should be treasured by local and national governments, not sold off or run down.
Councils have a statutory duty to provide comprehensive and efficient library services that are free and accessible to all. Legal challenges are being prepared/under way in Brent, Gloucestershire, Lewisham and Somerset. In addition, a judical review has been called about the Culture Secretary’s failure to comply with his legal duties at a national level. The law firm behind the challenge have made a call for information from anyone with information about cuts to local services that may be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.
Voices for the Library aim to provide a balanced view of the service and the professionals who work there. They work to share positive stories from public libraries and librarians across the country, provide factual information about library usage in the UK, be a voice for communities and individuals to speak out about why they value their public libraries, and to support local campaigns to save libraries where local councils have not properly considered the impact of cuts to library services.
Is your librarian your neighbourhood hero? Stand up for libraries. Join the campaign.
Living Streets is campaigning to make sure neighbourhood shops and services are kept within walking distance and are at the heart of any changes to planning regulations. While the government is undertaking the biggest shake-up of the UK planning system for a generation, Living Streets is campaigning to make sure they understand the need to keep the shops and services we value within walking distance. The campaign invites people to celebrate their neighbourhood hero and to send a sign to government that we want to keep them close, not watch them close.