Libraries: hallmarks of community life

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In the age of kindle, Amazon and Waterstone’s the need for public libraries is seemingly dwindling, and nostalgia for long lost hours spent perusing the children’s books is not enough to sustain all these unprofitable institutions. For many, their closures would not mean much, and in this time of austerity there are surely worse things to be cut than books and buildings? Surely it is right for libraries to be swept into the private sector, where their true value can be opened to market forces?

But for those who believe that libraries and many other facets of social life are testament to a different argument, the claim that there are aspects of our social world which may not be profitable but are worthy of state funding, there is a real sense of loss. Public libraries are valuable, and not only for those who find meaning within their walls.

In 2011-2012 there were 201 libraries closed across the country, and 146 closures the year before. Sheffield will see £1.6 million cut from the libraries budget and Sheffield City Council is asking local residents to assist in saving 14 of its public libraries. In Newcastle there are 10 out of 18 public libraries in the city due to be closed. Phil Bradley, the President of the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals says, ‘I don’t think that 2013 is going to be any better than 2012 was to be honest. In fact if anything it’s going to be much worse.’

These cuts in council arts budgets and ensuing library closures are due to large cuts in government grants to local authorities, and are being fiercely contested, with local residents, writers and charities rallying to defend them. The author of the children’s classic The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson, has argued that it risks creating a ‘a population of more illiterate people.’ Another children’s writer, David Almond, who grew up in Gateshead, lamented the proposed library closures and has spoken of how in his childhood ‘the library was hugely liberating, it was egalitarian and democratic. I hated going to school, but I loved going to the library.’ Another protestor, James Holland, cut to the heart of why so many people are incensed by library closures: ‘Libraries are something people hold very close to their hearts – even if they don’t go to them. They are ingrained in our culture.’

Donaldson, Almond and Holland point to the core reasons of why libraries are so important: they educate us, they are open and free to everyone and they are centrepieces of communities. The latter point is especially important. There are thousands of library users every year who meet friends, read, socialise and relax there. The library is a focal point in their lives. As one library user, Linda Jeavons says, ‘we all became friends here. I look forward to popping in, otherwise I’d just be sat at home.’

Our political culture has become over reliant on results rather than relationships. Yes, concrete results are useful when it comes to directing government funds – there wouldn’t be much point piling taxpayer money into a public horse and carriage system of transport even if a community really valued such a means of transport. In government it is often better to analyse state functions using league tables, central government targets and numbers. Institutions like the NHS, education and the transport system can be assessed using quantitative methods. How long are waiting times? How many children are gaining five A – C grades at GCSE? What is the average commuter time?

In other spheres however, numeric analysis is at odds with the ‘community’ and ‘society,’ notions which are largely unquantifiable and do not readily lend themselves to political scrutiny. Libraries are a good example. One can look to see how many people use libraries a year, how many books are borrowed and how libraries help adult education and research, but not the sense of loyalty or community – these and other instincts cannot be measured.

The traditional liberal conception of individual agents pursuing their self-interest in a world of other self-interested individuals is incomplete. It does not account for the interdependence of life. Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute has argued that ‘Public libraries could be taken over by community and voluntary groups, who might actually run them more appropriately for local needs.’ This is unrealistic. Libraries are a reminder that, in Tony Judt’s words, ‘Public goods – if they are to remain public – need to be provided at public expense.’ [1]

In the overwhelming majority of cases library closures mean the end of such a service. People cannot afford or are able to maintain a local library without government support. An exception to this is the case of Friern Barnet Library in north London. [8] After Barnet Council proposed its closure the site was occupied by campaigners and a book lending service was operated. Although a judge ordered the occupiers to be evicted, Barnet Council has agreed to transfer the premises and its operation to the community.

In this case squatting and a two-year campaign ensured the safeguarding of this community library. If these are the kind of hoops needed to keep one such important entity open then it is likely that many libraries will close and community groups will be unable to save them. For this reason, and many others, government cutbacks are damaging society.

Article by Ben Mackay. Edited by Chris Olewicz.

[1] Judt, Tony. Ill Fares the Land: a Treatise on our Present Discontents (London: Penguin 2010)