They are considered a cornerstone of the community but libraries are under threat. Neil Hudson reports on the efforts being made to safeguard an unsung British institition
MOST people will be able to recall from childhood a visit to their local library and the sense of awe to be had while wandering between towering bookshelves, laden with tomes of every size and subject and of discovering those hidden corners where the silence sits heavy and the only thing to do is turn the page and let the words come alive.
But as much of an institution as it is, the local library is under threat and some fear it will disadvantage a generation of children. Amid the fallout from Chancellor George Osborne’s spending cuts, councils are being forced to make stark decisions because when it comes to choosing between funding care homes and library services, the latter is seen as a softer target. It’s not that councils don’t have a statutory duty to provide library services. They do. Under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, local authorities must “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons in the area that want to make use of it” and also to “lend books and other printed material free of charge for those who live, work or study in the area.”
The only problem with that is no-one bothered to define what “comprehensive and efficient” means, notwithstanding the fact that putting both words in the same sentence has the whiff of contradiction.
Councils across the land have looked for ways to balance their books in the wake of deep spending cuts, which in the case of Kirklees Council is expected to be in the region of 40 per cent of its government funding by 2018. Cutting bin collections and reducing grass cutting (both of which have been done) just isn’t enough and if you close the odd library, people may complain but no-one is going to die.
Councils are now increasingly turning to ‘friends groups’ and bands of volunteers to take on much of the day-to-day running of front line library services where otherwise closure would be the only option. Such an approach has already been taken in several areas in Leeds, including in Rawdwon, Shadwell, Cross Gates and Drighlington. It is not without its controversy, not least because it has the effect of putting paid professionals out of jobs.
But now one West Yorkshire council has pretty much given voluntary groups carte blanche when it comes to running its libraries. Just a few months ago, Kirklees Council was considering closing 24 of its 26 libraries. The council debated the subject on Wednesday and will act soon on a recent consultation of the plans, which saw strong opposition from ‘friends’ groups who are against the closure plans - in Batley, more than 11,000 people signed a petition calling for their library, opened in 1907, to remain open.
Councillor Graham Turner, the Labour cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, said they had pulled back from what “the nuclear option” of closing 24 of the 26 but said cuts were almost innevitable.
“We’re predicting a 40 per cent cut in the amount we get from the government by 2017/8. We have already taken £80m out of the budget without people noticing - that’s been done through restructuring and until this year it’s not affected front line services but there comes a point when you have to make tough decisions. We’ve decided we cannot do ‘the nuclear option’ and we will be drawing up options based on the consultation, which will go to cabinet in September.”
Coun Turner added he was keen to see bands of volunteers step forward to help with the running of libraries.
He said: “If volunteers come forward... the more help we can get, the further we can make the money go, the more libraries we can save.”
Campaigners are keen to stress the ‘unseen’ benefits of libraries, the fact they foster social inclusion, help people find work and act as an anchor for so many community groups,offering a lifeline for everyone from mums with young children to the elderly.
Relying on volunteers to run libraries might be seen as an option but Lauren Smith from Doncaster campaign group Voices for the Library, says it’s not a viable long term solution.
“It’s very well intentioned but it’s not sustainable. Many groups feel they’ve been pressured into it, hoping it’s a short-term solution. The reality is if it’s not funded and run by volunteers, there’s a danger of that support dropping off. Volunteers are not paid so if they’re late opening one day or just don’t turn up, there’s nothing anyone can say and if people have turned up to the library and that happens, they’re less likely to return.
“There’s not enough big voices standing up for libraries, shouting about how they help with social mobility and inclusion.”
But volunteers running Drighlington Library may beg to differ. They took over running of the centre in 2012 and have since boosted visitor numbers.
Jeni Arnold, chair of the charity which funds the library, said the permanent closure of the library would have disadvantaged hundreds.
“They said, you have a library in Morley and also Gildersome, so we’ll provide you with a mobile library. But we do not want that. Elderly people or people with small children are not going to wait for a bus to take them to the library in Morley and so, what would have happened is, numbers would have dropped and the council would then look at that and said there’s no demand.”
But the library, which has doubled its opening hours since the volunteers took over, is making a real go of it, attracting up to 100 visits a week, and has even offered to advise other groups wanting to do the same.
Mary Goldsworthy, chair of Drighlington Community Library, boasted they were proud of their computer suite, adding: “We think it’s vital, we help people look for jobs, we run coffee mornings, support the summer reading challenge for children and we’re a place people can come and sit and read the papers. We do this with the help of 50 volunteers.”
Kirklees Coun Robert Light (Con, Birstall and Birkenshaw), a former leader of the local authority, said at the meeting on Wednesday libraries needed to change. He cited the example of Birstall Library, which in 2001 was earmarked for closure due to its poor patronage but after the council converted it into an ‘information centre’ providing other council services, its numbers soared.
“We had people say at the time, ‘But libraries are meant to be quiet places, you can’t talk in libraries’ but since we did this, it’s now near the top of the middle tier of libraries in Kirklees.”
Others have called for libraries to offer free wi-fi and become more like cafes. With so many facing closure, it’s clear they face a new chapter in their history and there are plenty of volunteers, at least, keen to write it.
There will be a meeting to discuss the future of Batley Library tonight at 7pm at the library, chaired by Malcolm Haigh.