Keep libraries in the spotlight

Last Friday I cut the ribbon and opened a new library in Southsea, Hampshire. At a time when many libraries are under the threat of closure, the transformation of a former Woolworths is a sign of possibility, of joined-up thinking, of an attempt to refashion what libraries are and how they fit within the community.

As well as being a state-of-the-art library, it has an IT learning zone, a meeting space for local groups, a customer service centre for council services and a café. Longer opening hours, a positioning of other services and analysis of why people do—or do not—use libraries have all been used to create a modern, fit-for-purpose, library.

Free and fair access to books, to learning, to opportunity, regardless of where you live, how you live, how much money you earn, is—or was, at least—fundamental to the British education system. Books from cradle to grave.

Of course, behind the euphoria of new libraries opening is a well-worn story of years of lack of investment in existing libraries, lack of commitment to modernising older buildings and a belief (genuine, in most cases) that centralisation of services and stock is a more appropriate offer in the 21st century. In libraries, small is no longer beautiful.

All of these arguments have been rehearsed, rehashed, rehabilitated and renounced on the pages of The Bookseller and blogs over the past 18 months. But spending time with campaigners in different parts of the UK, what’s struck me most is the bewilderment from normal people who do not understand the lack of will from the highest levels to prevent our national library service, the envy of the world, being dismantled.

The Bookseller has consistently kept the issue -centre-stage, reporting on campaigns, how activists are discovering themselves lumbered with huge bills, how the much promised safety net of a Judicial Review is proving to be mere smoke-and-mirrors. The Arts Council has published a paper, the PA and BA are grappling with challenges, campaigners question the absence of any national body prepared to speak loudly enough in support of what the grass-roots campaigners are doing.

One of the most effective tactics in disarming any campaign on the ground is simply to wait it out. Politicians—national and local—are clearly hoping that campaigners (who have jobs, families, responsibilities, nine-to-fives) will run out of money and steam. It’s a waiting game.

It’s why campaigns such as the Summer Reading Challenge, organised by The Reading Agency, are so crucial. They keep the spotlight shining on libraries. This is the time—as problems in all areas of funding and social prioritising become more acute and more fiercely argued—that politicians hope the library campaign will be forgotten. We owe it to the campaigners, and to ourselves, to keep the issue alive.