I am a regular visitor to the Barnsley Central Library. In the library is a plaque that reads: ‘The moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold into a library, we’ve changed their lives forever, and for the better.’
Classic Obama prose – but he’s right. Because within each library lies a reservoir of potential. Libraries are in the middle of a difficult and necessary process of change, but they can emerge transformed. In an age where citizen engagement is reshaping our democracy, where education is more vital than ever, where we increasingly live in a knowledge economy, where access to information is almost as important to being able to fully participate in life as access to electricity; libraries should be more relevant than ever.
Is there any other place like a library? Is there any other public space where anyone, rich, poor, immigrant, unemployed, parent, schoolchild, retiree – anyone can come and sit, and think, and work, and read, and go online, without paying for the privilege or anyone asking you to leave? Libraries offer a place to learn, to socialise, to connect, to access the arts and enjoy literature and the news. Libraries teach children that reading really is fun and let adults read alone or in company. Libraries are instruments that can be used to inspire, motivate, innovate and raise the aspiration of any person that chooses to use them.
Libraries are neutral, safe, supporting places, where the experience is controlled to a good extent by the users themselves and where individuals, couples and families, can pursue what is important to them. They are perhaps the least intimidating of all public spaces, somewhere people tend to feel an easier sense of ownership. Maybe that is why libraries are so often seen as a community asset in the way other institutions are not.
Of course, libraries face enormous challenges, which cannot be ignored. Over the last few years the global economic downturn has impacted on cities and communities across Britain. The reality has been huge pressure for local government cuts: many councils have been backed into an impossible position by David Cameron, Eric Pickles, Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey – the minister allegedly ‘responsible’ for libraries. Does anybody seriously believe that libraries are safe in their hands?
And there are longer-term issues. When many can search the internet from the comfort of their own home, and when you can download an e-book onto a kindle in seconds, the idea of going to a library and trawling the shelves for something to borrow seems to some an outdated practice.
Like any institution, particularly one funded by the public purse, if libraries are to maintain their purpose and place in the 21st century then they must progress and modernise. But this is not a mandate to rebuild every library from scratch, or for mindless closures. Instead, it presents an opportunity to be visionary about the place of a library in a modern Britain.
I believe that in the darkest of times, we need the brightest of ideas. Now more than ever is the moment to harness the opportunities that libraries offer and employ them as ladders of social mobility and personal development. To realise that potential, libraries must evolve and develop. These are undoubtedly difficult times, and with them come difficult decisions, but there can be no excuse for government policies that are short-sighted and destructive.
As the shadow culture minister, I’ve commissioned a report entitled, ‘A Vision for a 21st Century Library’. I did this because I want the debate over libraries in Westminster to be properly informed by practice on the ground and around the regions. I want to know why people value their local library service, and how library services can be developed.
Plenty of local authorities have seized the challenge. I began my library tour at the ‘super library’ in Southwark, a place that has seen an increase in visitor numbers, has kept every single library open and developed a plan to ensure that over the next two years, money is saved. I also visited the Ideas Store in Tower Hamlets, another example of innovative thinking from a local council which has ensured local people continue to enjoy these vital services in the most modern of settings.
Obama also said that: ‘More than a building that houses books and data, the library has always been a window to a larger world.’ These libraries aspire to just that ideal. They are places that are a pleasure to visit, that offer not just information but inspiration and support. The bigger ones have performance and rehearsal spaces, meeting rooms, coffee shops, galleries. Here the neutral, inviting space of the library anchors a wider focus for the whole community. It’s not just about size: even the smaller libraries often have exceptional staff, dedicated people who see it as their duty to help people navigate what can be a bewildering range of sources, to facilitate their own knowledge exploration.
Of course costs have to be cut, but often there is much that can be done before cutting services and branches. Co-location, for example, is in many ways a solution whose time has come. To have a library, gallery, museum, restaurant, theatre, advice bureau or business startup centre, all within one building, can save money and multiply their impact and reach. Libraries can open up their doors to coffee shops, and sometimes to local artists, poets, musicians and actors, sweating their assets by renting out rehearsal and performance spaces. And in many cases local library authorities can combine their back office operations to make significant efficiency savings.
Libraries can also bring in volunteers to reduce costs, but this should be an engagement of the community rather than a shuffling off of responsibility. Volunteers are important and welcome additions, but I have yet to meet a group who would not rather be supporting a service adequately funded by the state. The Tory vision of the ‘big society’ is an ideological cloak for diluting the basic premise that, these services are a fundamental duty of a decent society, and should be treated as such.
The right fit will vary from place to place, but one thing is clear: the government should be pulling out the stops to help local authorities find imaginative and innovative ways to cut budgets without cutting services – but they’re not. Currently, 600 libraries across the land face the risk of closure. When they shut their doors they will be lost forever. Long after the deficit has been paid off and the rhetoric has been forgotten, communities will still be feeling the effects of these shortsighted policies.
In the end, the decision over how we maximise the opportunities that libraries have to offer is also an ideological one. The demographic that is hardest hit by the closure of libraries is always the poorest. The men, women and children who cannot afford the latest laptop and who struggle to pay the landline bill, (if they are even connected) let alone get wi-fi broadband – these are the people you find using the library computers, books and social space. They are the ones in the library doing their homework, searching for jobs and striving to improve their life opportunities.
These opportunities should not be the privilege of a minority in better-off local authorities, but a right for all, accessible by everyone, which the government has a duty to protect. Their social impact is hard to quantify, one reason libraries have often been undervalued, but it is real and substantial. And the government should be properly exploiting this huge but often under-used asset, by integrating the library more deeply into every aspect of government services. They are failing to do so.
Libraries evoke strong emotions. You can’t ignore the need for cuts, or for libraries to justify their funding: it would be a dereliction of duty not to be clear-eyed and hard-headed about what libraries mean today. But at the same time this is also about more than just pounds and pence. Libraries represent a certain set of values, part of a wider sense of what kind of a society we are and what kind of a country we want to be. Whatever else, those are the values I believe in. That is why we must not to be overtaken by nostalgia and why we must be imaginative and ambitious.
Saying that of course, is the easy part. Over the coming months, I will be visiting libraries around the country to put some flesh on that vision. I would welcome input from anyone who cares about libraries. But this is where I am starting from. Our libraries, and the communities they serve, deserve nothing less.