Lords to debate library 'crisis' and independent bookshops

Lords to debate library 'crisis' and independent bookshops

Campaigners have called for the House of Lords to intervene in the "crisis" in the public library sector and to pledge its support for independent booksellers ahead of a debate about the significance of libraries and bookshops in UK society.

Organised by Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue magazine, the debate will see speakers - including Penguin Random House chair Baroness Gail Rebuck - discuss the cultural, civic and educational significance of local libraries and independent bookshops in the United Kingdom in the House of Lords on Thursday 13th October.

Campaigners, library professionals and booksellers across the country have welcomed the debate, and emphasised that support for booksellers and libraries should be "at the heart" of the government's educational and cultural policies.

Earlier this year, a report by the BBC found that the widespread library closures across the UK have resulted in the loss of almost 8,000 jobs in the last six years. The investigation revealed that the amount of volunteers in use in libraries has almost doubled since 2010, rising from 15,861 to 31,403. In this time, the number of paid staff fell from 31,977 to 24,044, which is a drop of 25% for the 182 libraries that provided comparable data. The report also found that a total of 343 libraries have closed in the same time period. This number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 closures.

Children’s author Alan Gibbons has said that the public library service is facing “the greatest crisis in its history”, although the government has refuted this claim, with former libraries minister Ev Vaizey saying that the service is "not in crisis".

Nick Poole, c.e.o of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) told The Bookseller that he wanted the House of Lords to intervene in the closure of libraries following the debate and urged the government to emergency relief from closure of public library service as part of the the Autumn Statement.

“We stand on the precipice of the most significant literacy and skills crisis in the post-war era," he said. "Public libraries provide everyone with equal opportunities to develop a love of reading, access books, and learn new skills. Since 2010, however, the public library network has been largely neglected. The number of libraries has fallen by over 6% and the number of qualified librarians has reduced by a quarter. Expenditure on public libraries in England fell by £69.1m in three years and the number of books has reduced by 20.5m in five years.

“We are asking the House of Lords to intervene and mitigate the impact of the impending literacy and skills crisis by urging the government to include in the Autumn Statement emergency relief from closure of public libraries, to revisit the draft Ambition for Public Libraries in England and strengthen it through the establishment of a clearly-mandated and appropriately resourced development function for public libraries, and to restore the Advisory Council on Libraries to provide ongoing expert advice on libraries, books and reading programmes.”

Elizabeth Ash, trustee of the Library Campaign, hopes that the discussion will see the issues affecting the library service "properly debated", including discussions about the loss of "so many libraries" and also the drop in funding to support the remaining libraries, which has "led to the loss of library workers who are vital to delivering and effective library service" and to "reduced opening hours" and "depleted stock", Ash said.

She concluded: "The current focus of local politicians on open doors without proper consideration of the level of service being offered needs to be addressed. We'd not accept many of the models being proposed in our schools, for example, so why should we for libraries?"

Veteran library campaigner, Desmond Clarke, said the debate will "highlight the crisis facing the sector", but "what is urgently needed is a proper action plan". 

"Almost a third of users have stopped using the service over the past decade and councils such as Lancashire are threatening to close most of their libraries," he said. "We have to insist that that the DCMS, the LGA and the Taskforce take responsibility and start to provide answers."

In 2014, The Bookseller reported that the number of independent bookshops in the UK had fallen below 1,000 for the first time due to rising rents and rates, less trade as high streets suffer and competition from supermarkets, online retailers and readers migrating to e-books. By November 2015, the number of indie bookshops had fallen to 895. Although while Tim Godfray, c.e.o. of the Bookseller's Association (BA), described the figures as "deeply depressing" he also said that the rate of decline was slowing.

Giles Clifton, head of corporate affairs at the BA, said he hoped the debate would bring attention to two issues of concern for booksellers -fair competition in the book market, and the heavy and disproportionate tax burden bookshops face compared with some of their main international competitors.

"We are delighted that Lord Bird has secured a debate in the House of Lords that gives an opportunity to discuss, reflect on, and hopefully increase interest in and support for, bookshops generally," he said. "...The BA has argued for some time that the wider book market suffers from a chronic imbalance, that allows an unfair advantage to Internet-based sellers against bricks and mortar retailers in the UK. We urge the Competition Authorities to ensure that small independent bookshops are able to compete on a level playing field against the biggest online competitors. This also ties into our second main point. That the present taxation system, and in particular business rates, are deeply unfair on British-based bricks and mortar businesses. The Waterstones on Bedford High Street is paying over 16 times what the Amazon warehouse is paying under two miles away. This isn't reasonable, or fair, and we want the House of Lords to help raise this issue, shine a spotlight here, and help us work with the appropriate authorities to ensure that going forward we build a fairer, more comprehensive system.”

The Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB), a coalition of "left-leaning political bookshops", is putting together a paper ahead of the debate to represent the interests of bookshops.

Ross Bradshaw, member of the ARB and owner of Nottingham's Five Leaves Bookshop, told the Bookseller: "Bookshops... libraries... we at least can say "we are all in it together", both of us adding much to urban and village life. Our shop is a place for debate and discussion as well as a place to buy books, as most bookshops are. We opened in late 2013 and would not have done so had we not felt there was a strong future for bookselling. But we welcome any support that local authorities and national government can give to the booktrade."

Bradshaw added: "I'd like to see more politicians come out in support of libraries, not least from the governing party. Leading politicians are very keen to publish their memoirs but it often seems they have little interest in places that sell their books or loan them. This debate at least raises issues publicly... and hopefully the ideas raised will be of interest to the House of Commons and open the door to legislation."

Betsy Tobin, co-owner of Islington-based bookshop Ink@84, added that libraries and bookshops were "vital" for access to books which are "essential food for the mind and soul". Support for both libraries and bookshops should be "at the heart" of the government's educational and cultural policies, Tobin said, adding: "As part of that support, we'd like to see increased rate relief for independent booksellers and more equitable taxation of the online retailers who threaten our existence".