Saving Book Town

Another week, another threat to a library: it’s The Bookseller’s equivalent of the old “Dog bites man” headline”. But for Scotland’s “Book Town” in Wigtown, Dumfries & Galloway, a proposal to cut library hours from 40.5 a week to 17.5  is particularly piquant.

Back in the 1990s, this town of 1,000 people in the boondocks of south-west Scotland was not a happy place. The local distillery and creamery had closed overnight, shedding 200 jobs. In the high street, windows were boarded up. Shops were shut. The magnificent gothic town hall - a throwback to Wigtown’s days as a prosperous rural county town - was a patchwork of decay, so poorly maintained it faced demolition.

In the absence of a big employer, what was needed was a big idea. When a national competition was announced to find a Book Town for Scotland, loosely based on Hay-on-Wye and its cluster of secondhand bookshops, Wigtowners saw their chance. Fighting off competition from five other small towns, they claimed the crown. A dozen booksellers moved to the area, drawn not by subsidy (there was none) but by the vision. Even the town hall was saved, thanks to the National Lottery - on condition it should house the local library.

Wigtown’s story is not quite a booky fairy-tale, but it’s pretty near. Yes, the town’s bookshops find themselves on the front line of the digital revolution that is transforming bookselling. And, yes, the community faces the same structural pressures confronting most remote rural communities in the UK. But Scotland’s Book Town now brings tens of thousands of visitors annually from around the world, attracted by the ideal of a town in which books have special status. By itself, the autumn Wigtown Book Festival (which I run) generates £2million for the local economy and creates the equivalent of 39 full-time jobs a year.

Joined-up thinking

No wonder, then, that so many visitors to Wigtown have been taken aback by the proposed cuts and have chosen to express their feelings alongside hundreds of locals in an online petition. Many are struck by the absurdity of a book town without a fully functioning library. There is shock, too: if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

Media stories about library cuts often assume a Manichaean quality, with local councils batting for the dark side. Not here. Dumfries & Galloway Council has been as visionary as anyone in pushing the social and economic benefits of the book town model, putting its money where its mouth is for more than a decade.

The problem isn’t goodwill but a lack of joined-up thought. As long as libraries are considered in isolation, their future is likely to be bleak. The failings of such an approach are evident in the council argument that Wigtown's small population only entitles it to a reduced number of opening hours - and that using a headcount formula to allocate resources across the region is only fair. Sounds common sense, until you consider that Wigtown has no gallery, cinema, theatre or arts centre. Where's the fairness now? In small places libraries fill a lot of gaps, as 49,000 library visits a year show in Wigtown.

Silo-thinking exists at national level too. Last August, the Scottish Government launched its first comprehensive youth arts policy, Time to Shine. Yet the very young people set to benefit from this much-needed initiative will be those hit by library cuts around Scotland. Leadership is needed to put libraries at the heart of the debate, not its periphery.

Who will provide it? The councillors meeting on the eve of National LIbrary Day to discuss cuts might offer a small start. For inspiration, they could do worse than look to the example of the eminent Victorian William Ewart, co-founder of Britain’s public library movement and former MP for Dumfries. That sound you can hear is him spinning in his grave.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival. An online petition can be found at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/wigtown-library-cuts