Tuesday, 14 February 2012
11:00 Mark Cantrell 1 comment
By Mark Cantrell
A library is traditionally a place of hush but now a coalition of campaigners is looking to shout the roof down in their defence.
Next month, trade unionists, library staff and library lovers are to host a joint lobby of Parliament to tell MPs in no uncertain terms that library closures threaten a vital community asset.
Government austerity cuts are threatening a loss of public services across the country and libraries are no exception, with a host of local branches and institutions already earmarked for closure by cash-strapped councils.
This is bad news not just for librarians, who stand t lose their jobs, but for the people who rely on them for rather more than borrowing a book.
“Cutting libraries is not an easy solution for councils to save cash – it is a literacy time bomb for deprived communities,” said Heather Wakefield, of the trades union UNISON.
Under David Cameron’s big idea – the Big Society – civil society is expected to step into the breach, with community groups and volunteers moving in to provide essential, or simply expected public services, but for many this is simply unrealistic.
Wakefield added: “Community groups are being held to ransom by Government plans to force them to take over the running of services – or lose them. These groups don’t have the time, skills and resources to take over the jobs of experienced library staff.
“A shocking 30,000 children are leaving primary school with a reading age of seven or below and libraries are a vital lifeline for community groups. We need a national vision of a modern library service as an investment in the future generation.”
Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), added: “The professional skills and expertise of library staff are core to providing the public with a quality library service. Volunteers should supplement and enrich a professional-led service, not replace the knowledge and skills of staff. We are concerned that public library services in England are being damaged. The impact will be felt now and in the long-term.
“We urge the Secretary of State [Jeremy Hunt] to use his powers of intervention where there is clear evidence that the Public Libraries & and Museums Act 1964 has been potentially breached. It is wrong to view public libraries solely as a cost. By providing opportunities for learning and literacy development, libraries are an investment in communities, families and individuals.”
UNISON and CILIP, together with other campaign groups, intend to take their case to Parliament on 13 March 2012, gathering at Central Hall, Westminster, to highlight what they see as the importance of libraries in providing access to learning.
More than simply being a depository of books, the campaigners say that libraries are a “vital lifeline” for many communities.
But surely libraries tired old things now, hollowed out by the digital revolution? Not according to Andrew Coburn, Secretary of The Library Campaign.
He said: “Public libraries still have a wide-ranging role in encouraging literacy and education as well as providing literature for leisure and information. MPs need to know what a real 21st Century library service can provide – so that they can join the thousands who are trying to prevent their branches being closed and services mutilated.”
Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) has also spoken up in support of libraries: “A threat to local library services is a threat to a community’s education and, as champions of libraries for the past 96 years, WI members are gravely concerned that so many local authorities are riding roughshod over educational resources while the Government watches in silence.
“It is simply not good enough to assume that volunteers will step in to continue providing services previously supplied by professionals. The Government cannot rely on community-minded individuals to step into the breach to bridge the gaps – and the loss of professional expertise is irreplaceable.
“Local libraries are a fundamental information and education resource. Whilst in their essence, libraries facilitate access to books and resources, they play a much wider role in promoting shared knowledge and equality of opportunity, facilitating community cohesion, and enabling life-long learning and literacy from cradle to grave.”
Somehow, it seems a shame that an appeal for libraries must rely on ministerial jargon such as ‘community cohesion’, ‘lifelong learning’ and other such dry aspects of ‘accountant’ language, but in a society where access to books and culture is deemed something of a luxury, inevitably a case must be made somehow.
“[We] are urging anyone concerned for the future of the library service in the UK to get involved on March 13th. This is your chance to tell your MP how vital your local library service is, and ask them to call the Secretary of State to task over his noticeable lack of involvement,” said Abby Barker, from the organisation Voices for the Library.
“The 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act very clearly puts public libraries under the superintendence of the Secretary of State, however, Jeremy Hunt has yet to intervene on any level – even in the most extreme cases.”
Alan Gibbons, author and organiser of Campaign for the Book, said: “A reading child is a successful child. The National Literacy Trust has found that a child who goes to a library is twice as likely to read well as one who doesn’t. The UK currently stands 25th in the PISA International Reading ranking. Libraries are vital to improving this position. We have to fight for the defence and extension of public library services.”
Anyone concerned can follow the campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #librarieslobby.