YOU can measure the health of a society in many ways, but I reckon that libraries are a perfect indicator of how well we are functioning.
According to a BBC investigation, almost 8,000 jobs in UK libraries have disappeared in six years – about a quarter of the overall total.
Over that same period, some 15,000 volunteers have been recruited and 343 libraries have closed. In the BBC online report of this story, the children’s author Alan Gibbons says the public library service faces the “greatest crisis in its history”.
The government responded to the report by saying that it “funded the roll-out of Wi-Fi to help libraries adapt”. They might as well have said: “We funded the communal buying of firelighters for a big book bonfire.”
The things government spokespeople come up with at such times are telling, so here is what the Department for Media, Culture and Sport said in the Guardian report of this BBC investigation: “Libraries are cornerstones of their communities and are part of the fabric of our society, so it’s vital they continue to innovate in order to meet the changing demands of those they serve.
“Government is helping libraries to modernise by funding a Wi-Fi roll-out across England that has benefited more than 1,000 libraries and increasing access to digital services and e-lending.”
This is a classic response. First deflect the criticism by praising what is being affected – “Libraries are cornerstones of their communities…” – and then avoid answering the question by throwing in a distraction – “Government is helping libraries to modernise…”.
Now Wi-Fi may be a wonderful thing for a library – it’s certainly pretty useful round our house (apart from that bloody buffering BT TV). But it’s not the life and soul of a library. That is contained in the pages of the books and the educated minds of the librarians.
Ed Vazey, the culture minister, popped up on the TV news to attack local councils for closing libraries – hiding, in other words, behind the usual argument that such cuts are nothing to do with the government. It’s a useful trick, that one – and Mr Vazey pulled it off with shameless aplomb.
The BBC report used the Freedom of Information Act to gather data from 207 authorities responsible for running libraries. This revealed that 343 libraries had closed, 132 mobile services and 207 based in buildings; a further 111 closures are planned this year; and the number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now; and a further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run.
Mr Vazey sees libraries as a success story and if you Google his name and ‘library’ you will find lots of quotes about the wonderfulness of libraries. He’s not wrong about that, but are we seeing the inexorable unravelling of libraries? That is the worry here.
In the BBC online report, you can click your local authority to see what has happened, and this showed that no libraries have closed in York. So that at least is encouraging, although the picture is gloomier for Yorkshire as a whole, according to BBC Look North, which reported that the county had the highest rate of closures.
Now I have been to a few libraries in York where people have been kind enough to sit still while I waffle on about books I have written. Bishopthorpe, Copmanthorpe, Tadcaster Road and the main Explore Library have all called on my services, which was kind of them. I have also popped into our local Acomb Explore library and found it to be buzzing with life.
In this household, my wife is the real library user as I’ve always had a thing about owning books. I still have all my university books from studying English literature, although God only knows why. To prove the past existence of a mind; to sniff the yellowed pages of my distant youth?
But I can see that libraries are important, a true measure of a society that is thoughtfully run and takes proper care of its responsibilities. Libraries are liberating and empowering, they open doors – and they let people borrow books about almost anything (at least they do if they’re still open).
All praise to the volunteers who have kept afloat libraries that would otherwise have shut. But I’m with Philip Pullman, author of the bestselling fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, when he says that the library service should not rely on volunteers.
“It is exploiting people’s goodness and willingness to work and so on,” Pullman told BBC Radio Oxford.
“I am in favour of volunteering but relying on volunteers to provide a service that ought to be statutory is not a good policy. What next? Are we going to rely on volunteer teachers because we can’t find new teachers because all the staffing levels in schools are going down?”
Don’t that say, Philip – it will only give them ideas.