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On the brink

The headlines that greeted the CMS Select Committee’s review into library closures made grim reading. Rather than providing answers or direction, the review made plain what everyone already knew: libraries are closing, and there is little political will for this situation to be reversed.

The report is coded in language that merely chronicles a crime already foretold without daring to catch the perpetrator. Everyone needs to “work harder”, local authorities “appear insufficiently aware” of their statutory duties, the government needs to provide guidance “as swiftly as possible”, community-run libraries “can be” useful add-ons and, most worryingly, the duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service offers no surety that libraries must remain open.

The government is not committed to assessing the cuts now until 2014, one year before the end of its run. It doesn’t take a genius to see how that will go. To call this a sleight of hand is to insult magicians. According to the report the libraries minister does not consider his role “redundant”, even though he does not act: he said the mere fear that he will call local authorities to account makes many think again. Ed Vaizey is a ref with a whistle but one never minded to draw breath and blow—as the committee concluded, this nonsensical scenario “satisfies no one”.

As Desmond Clarke argues, public libraries need leadership, and it is difficult to see where this will now come from—except, of course, by way of the continuing and tireless efforts of librarians and library patrons.

Having spent part of my week at the Sharjah International Book Fair, the comparison of the two governments shames the UK coalition. In Sharjah there is determined government-led leadership to build momentum for a publishing community that can serve a cultural and educational need, despite the many barriers to the free exchange of information that still exist. Authors, publishers and intellectuals are necessary to “maintain the balance”, the Ruler of Sharjah said at the fair’s opening ceremony.

Oddly, David Cameron was in the UAE at the same time, but it is doubtful that he would have shared the sentiment. Some have said that the problem with Cameron’s Tories is that they simply do not know what it is to be without. Sadly, the coalition’s library legacy will ensure that many do not enjoy a similar luxury.