The fight to stave off library closures is paradoxically a national issue yet intensely local. It has fired the minds of tens of thousands of people up and down the country, yet because of the nature of the cuts—overall set by Westminster, but down to each local authority to decide where and how the axe falls—the battles are being fought on a council by council, community by community basis.
The disparate nature of the struggle is one of the reasons why we decided to launch The Book-seller's Fight for Libraries -campaign. We wanted to act as a hub, a communication point, to link the many campaigns, and like-minded people throughout the UK. What follows is just the briefest of tastes of the local groups and issues that have come out of the campaign. To find out more and get involved in your local campaign visit us on www.facebook.com/fightforlibraries.
Somerset: A Campaign Story
On the 16th December 2010, residents of Somerset found out that 20 of their 40 libraries were under threat of closure in an attempt by Somerset County Council (SCC) to save £1.35m from its library budget of £5.4m. Not willing to let their libraries close unchallenged, residents quickly banded together to form the Save Somerset's Libraries and the Friends of Glastonbury Library (FOGL) campaigns.
Glastonbury resident Ken Kutsch was an active member of the FOGL campaign from the start. He says: "What was great with FOGL was that things became very organised, very quickly, we were all amazed at the unity and speed with which things came together. One member, Richard Chisnall, set up an online group that helped us to communicate and then before we knew it we were already out of the starting gate in a big way, which I think surprised SCC, as I don't think they expected us to work over Christmas and New Year.
"The next stage for us was to find out more about the 1964 Library Act and work our what was being proposed and the legal considerations in play, which added another level of sophistication to the movement. Within three weeks we had people telling us that we were leading the way in library campaigning and asking our advice on how to set campaign groups up and that's when we started having more contact with campaigners like Alan Gibbons and doing things more on a national level."
FOGL then secured chances to present alternative proposals to the county, district and town councils. It submitted a costed proposal on 13th January, which would see the necessary £1.35m saved and enable all 43 libraries to remain open, with a reduction in services, "preserving the library infrastructure so it can be built up again when the economy recovers". Kutsch says: "Since hearing us speak and seeing our proposals we can see a respect and recognition coming from them. We live in a day and age where there is a lot of apathy and people feel like we're not being heard or being well represented. It is exciting to see so many people getting engaged with this matter."
After listening to the campaigners, SCC announced on the 25th January that nine libraries had been removed from the list of potential closures, with the remaining 31 libraries to face a 20% cut in opening times, leaving 11 libraries to either be run by volunteers or face closure (six libraries this year and five next year). Although this is a step in the right direction campaigners are still concerned for the remaining 11 libraries that are under threat, and wary of volunteer-led initiatives. Kutsch explains: "We're not a fan of the Big Society as the government puts it, which is just asking people to work for free. A lot of volunteers will be needed to run a library and we should not downplay the importance of professional librarians."
The SCC's latest proposal will go to councillors next week before the major budget-setting meeting of the full council on 16th February. FOGL has not stopped there however, and some members have subsequently started a campaign writing letters and emails targeting the 20 Conservative councillors who sit on district councils and face re-election in May.
Ken Kutsch and fellow independent filmmakers Garfield Kennedy and Kevin Redpath produced "We Love Libraries" a 10-minute film project for the Save Our Libraries national campaign which asks over 80 people about what libraries mean to them. Interviewees include authors Julian Fellowes, Salman Rushdie, Alan Bennett, Kate Mosse and Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. Released on 1st February it can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5UTxZ3rTTs.
Harrow: Will self-service show the way?
Councils across the UK are making tough decisions when it comes to budget cuts and although it is facing cuts of around £50m over the next three years, Harrow Council is determined not to close any of its 11 libraries. Instead of shutting libraries, or reducing opening hours, the Labour council has introduced self-service technology, which will save over £1.1m a year and ". . . allow staff to concentrate on genuine library work and not on admin duties."
The implementation of self-service machines coincides with the loss of 34 full-time library positions, however, and local residents and library unions have expressed their concerns over the decline of front-line services. Speaking in October when the job cuts were announced, councillor Rekha Shah said: "We care passionately about libraries in Harrow and that is why we are fighting to keep them open by introducing self-service technology . . . we want to protect [libraries] but government cuts mean that we have to be realistic, with less money in the pot to provide the services our residents need."
Harrow library readers borrowed 536,832 fiction books between April 2009 and March 2010, nearly 10% up on the year before and councillors have subsequently decided to extend the opening hours of one of the busiest branches in Harrow town centre, so that it is now open seven days a week.
Council leader Bill Stephenson says: "The many protests and petitions currently taking place across London highlight how strongly people value their local libraries and don't want to see them go. However, libraries are far more than just a place to borrow books. They play a crucial role as trusted, accessible and universal community hubs of knowledge, information and services, free access to the internet—which you simply can't ignore when so many residents are fearful about the future because of the pace of the coalition's cuts.
"Despite this government's attempts to undermine us, we will continue to fight hard to keep our libraries open, and we have already begun looking at how we can do even more to ensure our residents have access to a community hub which allows them to get more involved in their local area. We are proud of the borough's community spirit and believe libraries will have a special role to play in maintaining and improving that sense of pride and helping residents to get more involved in their community."
The author: Josephine Cox
When I was growing up we couldn't afford books, so if it hadn't have been for my local library I would not have been able to discover so many wonderful books as a child. Without that library where would I be now? I'm speaking on behalf of a lot of people across this country, who do desperately need libraries to stay there for them, and for whom libraries are a real lifeline.
The powers that be don't realise what people want or need and all of the plans to close libraries have not been thought through. It is appalling what they're planning on doing. Libraries are not just about the books in them, people in all sorts of communities count on them. They are a place to meet friends and enjoy shared interests, a link to learning, reading and socialising as well as keeping up with technology and research. What is going to happen to communities if that goes?
I do library talks and events across the country and they are always packed with curious people,- which is wonderful. The powers that be are turning a blind eye to what works for a large proportion of the country and if smaller libraries go and all we are left wi"th is bigger, more impersonal libraries, it will not be good for so many communities across the UK."
Josephine Cox has had 43 books published since her début, Let Loose the Tigers, was released in 1988 and has sold over 4.8 million books for £25m since BookScan records began in 1998. Her latest novel Midnight (HarperCollins), is published on 17th February. A favourite among library users, Cox was the most borrowed British-born writer in 2008/09 according to the Public Lending Right.
For and against: volunteering
"Keith Mitchell and Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) are presenting us with a stark choice: would you rather have an open library run by volunteers or a closed library? That should not be the only choice. OCC has not made the case to the public that these cuts are even necessary and Mitchell will find that when it comes round to local elections, people will vote with their feet.
There has been no public consultation, which is just crass arrogance, and Ed Vaizey has said there will be no national enquiry, only case-by-case ones . . . well how about this case, Ed? Here is a county containing the city known as the city of learning, proposing to withdraw funding for nearly 50% of its library branches. Here is this council proposing to make these draconian cuts, without any type of fight from the council leader and with the only consultation being held after the decision is made . . . with the only question up for discussion being: ‘Do you want to put in a bid to run it as a group of volunteers?'
I think Mr Vaizey is going to find himself with a hell of a lot of cases to look at. A volunteer-led service is not a positive step in setting out a Big Society agenda. It is a back of the envelope job with many issues.
Firstly, nobody has thought through the data protection and security aspects (who will have access to people's personal information? What about CRB checks?). Most importantly and top of the objections, is that this proposal is an absolute insult to qualified librarians. As Philip Pullman said in his wonderful speech to an Oxfordshire library campaigners' meeting: if running a library was something you could do for ‘a thank you and a cup of tea' you wouldn't need to have years of training and experience. There is the acquisition and cataloguing of books to take into consideration and who except a dedicated professional is going to be able to keep abreast and know which are the books people will want and expect to see in their libraries? The idea is an absolute non-starter.
The county might very well get together a group of people who Mitchell has bullied into thinking that they will have no library unless they run it, but what happens to that library if after a few months they find it too expensive and too difficult to run? It will have to close anyway. There is no viable business model that has been offered yet for volunteers and we do not want to engage with the idea or accept that this is a reasonable way to go about things. We also don't accept the typical politician's question of ‘what would you cut instead' either. The council are elected to make the decisions and it is our job to show support for the services we value, and this is definitely one that hits the poor, the young and the old. We need safe places for children to do their homework and warm places for the elderly to meet and read."
Mary Hoffman is a critic and children's author. Her books include Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln) and the Stravaganza series (Bloomsbury). She lives in West Oxfordshire.
"We need to take £58m out of our budget this year and there are three paths we can take to do this. One is to exempt libraries completely and transfer £2m worth of cuts to another service area, and that will most likely be elderly care, learning difficulty care and care for people with mental health problems, because those are the biggest bits of our budget. Another option is to cut all of our libraries by 25% and therefore open them all for fewer hours. Finally, we can seek to fund 23 libraries and let the other 20 be run by volunteers.
We are short of money so we have to find different ways of delivering. When the private sector is up against it, they innovate and look at different models for delivering their products and we've got to do exactly the same. We have a strong middle class arguing for the libraries they love, and they've got Phillip Pullman and good for them, but I've got some poor communities to look after too and no one is worried about their libraries, we, the elected people have to fit in a balancing act between the noisy articulate class and the areas that haven't got the ability to advocate for themselves.
We also have to balance between social care, learning disabilities and libraries and I don't think people always register that, they concentrate on what matters to them, which is their library service which they want to protect at all costs and I've been vilified once or twice because I have said that.
We definitely want to help communities but I don't think there is a single viable model that can be offered. We have a diverse county and so we might look at alternative building locations in one area, and different provisions in another,- we might look at a ‘collect and deliver' spot in one place or see if a school can become a hub for the library service in another. Volunteer groups will be given a lot of support initially and we have created a Big Society fund to help communities with library services and other services under threat from funding cuts. We've set aside £600,000 to help make that transition from something that it is entirely dependent on the county council to something that is volunteer led.
Many campaigners are using data protection issues—which are clearly important—as reasons why we can't go down a volunteer route because they think a professional librarian service is the only way forward. I want to go down the route of finding a way round these issues and I want to see the minimum of blockages rather than the maximum so we can give people what they want, which is a library service in their community.
There might be a danger that the library service proves to be the most popular and that people that are currently helping pensioners or volunteering with youngsters might think that their local library is more important, but that is up to people's judgement and we'll have to see where that takes us. It comes back to the fact that we have got difficult decisions to make."
Keith Mitchell, CBE, has been an Oxfordshire County Council member for the Conservatives since 1989, and its leader since 2001.
Children's: A Special Loss?
The good news for children's library services is that they are generally regarded as a priority among regional heads of library services and local authorities. Unfortunately, however, children's library services are also being swept up in the cuts and many families face losing the support, events and programmes offered through their local library.
Janice Hall, vice-chair of the Association of Senior Children's & Educational Librarians and libraries development manager for community libraries in Newcastle, says: "Every library service head will be doing what they can to prioritise services to children; research has shown how important a child's early contact with books is, but the reality is that children's services will be affected by the cuts." Once councils put forward their budget plans in March, the level of planned cuts will be clearer.
Children's library services have traditionally worked closely with other services, such as Sure Start Centres and Children's Centres, the Bookstart book gifting programme, and initiatives such as the Summer Reading Challenge, each of which will be affected by library closures and the loss of specialist librarians.
Hall says: "We have been working closely with Sure Start Centres and Bookstart from the outset to provide linked services to targeted families. The work we do with Bookstart also brings us into contact with health services, so we have been able to take a very integrated approach to supporting families.
"The annoying thing is that in the big scheme of things, we are a very efficient user of money if you examine our reach and opening hours," said Hall. "We have, for example, a library in a deprived area in the west of the city that is the only building open after 5 p.m. and it is full of children and families. That one is staying open, but what about the ones that aren't?"
Another programme that is challenged by library closures is the Summer Reading Challenge (SRC), run by the Reading Agency. Last year, some 95% of UK public libraries ran the SRC, which encourages older children to read during the summer term. More than 750,000 children took part. Hall says: "We are all gearing up for it again this year but how will that stand in reality with all the closures we are facing? We may not have the buildings to run the SRC from this year."
Another network, school library services (SLS), is also increasingly under threat as a result of school budget cuts. SLS offer a distinct service into schools, providing teachers and school librarians with book loans to support curriculum teaching and reading for pleasure, and training. Schools have to buy in to their services, and the cuts in schools funding means that many are not doing so. Already this year, the Birmingham, Sutton and now Gateshead SLS have been closed.