Blind eye

There is a strong suspicion that the DCMS is turning a blind eye to the closure of libraries in some of the UK's most deprived communities.

Sue Charteris, in her often-quoted report on the Wirral Inquiry, made it very clear that special considerations must apply if closure of branches in deprived areas is contemplated.  Ed Vaizey, when in opposition, described proposals to close libraries in areas of deprivation in the Wirral as "cost-driven vandalism".

Alas, such speechifying has been of no assistance to the residents of Bolton where five libraries, all located in or serving deprived areas, have been closed. Similarly, it will not help residents who rely on the six libraries currently under threat in Manchester, nor those now campaigning to save their libraries in Herefordshire.

While Arts Council England and the Society of Chief Librarians mutter that it is not their responsibility when such libraries are closed, it is clear that a few chief librarians are increasingly alarmed and frustrated at the failure of any organisation to show leadership.  These bodies highlight the opening of a handful of shiny, central libraries—but fail to acknowledge the devastation caused to deprived and rural areas. The rural county of Herefordshire, for example, has even proposed closing all public libraries but one! 

The Local Government Association and some councils blame the need to close libraries on Government cuts. However, they, too, ignore the unintended consequences of closures in deprived or rural areas where, although usage may be lower, the need is greater—not least for toddler groups and homework clubs, mobile services, home delivery to the housebound and access to the Internet.

Is there any evidence that those in the DCMS lose a wink of sleep about library closures in seriously deprived areas?  They sat on the sidelines as Gloucestershire, Somerset and Surrey residents sought and won their own judicial reviews. These campaign groups had taken the advice of the Arts Council to "look to the future"—advice which underpinned their determination to fight for a proper library service in their communities. Residents were not willing to accept that access to public libraries should become a postcode lottery.

At the recent SCL "stakeholders" meeting there was a plea for the minister and the heads of the professional bodies to stand up and send a clear and powerful message about the importance and value of public libraries to support literacy, reading, education and the acquisition of information and knowledge. That message should be loudest on behalf of the most deprived communities.