Today is the first day of Libraries Week, and as shadow culture minister I hope as many people as possible will take the time to visit a library, borrow a book, or tweet and tell their friends about the services libraries offer.
Supporting and promoting our local libraries is crucial at a time when the Government is failing to appreciate their value and importance. Public libraries have been badly hit by policies of austerity. Since 2010, 478 libraries have closed across the UK. Last year, library visits fell by 5.5% and total library expenditure was reduced by £25 million. And yet, in the face of these figures, this Government is still refusing to put an end to the Local Authority cuts that are pressuring Councils into cutting important services.
I believe that at the root of this apparent indifference is a fundamental misunderstanding within DCMS, the Government Department with responsibility for libraries. Ministers seem to see the cultural sector in a binary way, divided into institutions that make money, and those that cost money. According to their logic, libraries fall into the second category. This can lead to the perception of libraries as subsidised niceties that can be trimmed away in times of austerity, rather than institutions which give a return on investment by helping to create better informed citizens.
This view is blinkered and ultimately unhelpful. Arts Council research shows that libraries have a 5 to 1 benefit-cost ratio. Through libraries, members of the public can become more informed, literate, and confident, and this can lead to savings in other Government services. That is, to understand the crucial work that libraries do, we need to look at people, not just financial profit. We need to move away from the language of subsidy and towards a language of investment.
For me, public libraries were crucial in shaping the person I am today. I grew up in Cwmbran, a small town in South Wales, in a home which wasn’t full of books, but where education was valued. As a youngster, I spent many hours in the local public library conducting my own research, reading about the topics that interested me the most, doing my homework and revising for exams. If it hadn’t been for my access to that library, I am certain I wouldn’t have done as well in school or gone on to become a Member of Parliament. Public libraries are crucial to achievement and social mobility. Now, I hold my constituency advice surgeries in Cardiff West in the local Hub, which contains the public library. It is the obvious place to meet the public because libraries are places where everyone is welcome and supported to reach their potential.
In the Labour Party, we understand the value of libraries and the challenges they currently face. We would put an end to the local government cuts that have led to such widespread library closures, and will reintroduce library standards, which were done away with by the Tory-led Coalition, so that Government can guide and assess local authorities in providing the best possible service. A Labour Government would modernise libraries to help improve digital access and literacy. This Libraries Week, we’re promoting the importance of our public libraries because we want them to be accessible to as many people as possible, all year round and into the future.
Kevin Brennan is the shadow culture minister.
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