This Saturday, Libraries across the UK will celebrate National Libraries Day; from a Caribbean Carnival in Brighton to Library staff embracing new technology by tweeting about their day in Leeds; libraries nationwide will be celebrating the essential role they play in providing services to local communities. If we believe in a society in which everyone, regardless of background, is able to pursue their interests, education and personal development then libraries are a fundamental tool which should be supported.
However, Saturday’s celebrations continue in spite of the harsh reality that many local libraries face under the current coalition Government. Between 2010-2012, 347 libraries were closed: this year, another 340 have closed or come under threat. We are facing the loss of almost 15% of all UK libraries over just a few years, and there is no sign that the damage will stop there.
The government’s reaction is to ignore the crisis. This is unacceptable. They have a statutory duty to oversee the library service. There is much more they could do to take the edge off this disaster – but they seem more concerned to preserve the fiction that all is well. It is time for the government to mark National Library Day by acknowledging the scale of the crisis in the service and starting a concerted effort to reduce the impact of government funding cuts.
I understand that the government does not want to acknowledge the impact of its own programme of cuts to local authority funding, but pretending this problem isn’t there is not going to make it go away. Labour’s policy document on Libraries was published in December 2012. It recommended a dedicated effort from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to engage and support councils on measures that might help mitigate the effect of cuts. These include measures such as the co-location of library services and consolidation of back office operations between authorities. There is a clear course of action for the Coalition to take but their refusal to do so continues to put education and community wellbeing at risk.
Labour’s Policy review highlighted the need for a review of the services that libraries offer communities and ways which they can be linked with local and national government. Furthermore there is a need for a long-term libraries strategy developed in partnership with councils with dedicated cross-government library organisation.
It’s time for a systematic and dedicated effort to engage and support councils on ways to mitigate the effect of the cuts and get the most out of libraries. This needs a clear system of oversight and standards whilst preserving local leadership. We can’t prevent all closures, but we can do a lot to reduce them. But that needs this government to treat libraries as a serious priority. It is my hope that National Libraries Day helps them to do this.