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Putting the 'Library of Birmingham' into some perspective. Will it rewrite or ditch the book?


Britain’s public libraries, like many other state services, from the National Health Service to schools, are not what they used to be. It’s not even clear that providing people with books is their main function anymore. ‘Digital inclusion’ and ‘community cohesion’ seem to rank equally highly nowadays.

Still, for many self-styled liberals and self-appointed anti-cuts activists, reality comes a poor second to political fantasy. In their 1980s dream world, not only are libraries as vital as they once were, bastions of learning and self-improvement, they are also threatened by the spectre of Thatchers in Cameroon clothing, a Tory scum government of the posh and the parvenu, who, with Hayek in one hand and the blood of public-sector cuts on the other, are waging ideologically motivated war on the poor and dispossessed.

The latest addition to this Red Wedge historical re-enactment society is doleful author Zadie Smith. Speaking last week at one of those north London pubs decked out like a threadbare stately home, she was in no doubt that local-authority plans to shut a number of library services across the county were a declaration of class war. ‘I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library’, she said while adjusting her Che beret and muttering something about power to the people.

‘But then’, she continued, ‘it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little’. Clearly impressed by talk of Thatcherite ‘low motives’, the BBC Radio 4 Todayprogramme picked up and ran with Smith’s speech on Friday morning, much to the annoyance of actual, living Tories.

Smith – ‘Wolfie’ to her friends – is far from alone in seeing prospective library closures in terms of a Tory’n'toff war on the impoverished. At the beginning of February, over 400 libraries were occupied by anti-cuts militants determined to shake the evil Tory edifice to its foundations using the dread power of Jackanory marathons and shhh-ins. Promoting what was called Save Our Libraries Day, one activist website explained the situation: ‘Popular, empowering and free – that’s why the Tories hate libraries.’

All of which raises one question: Have any of those willing to invoke library closures as an indictment of Tory scumminess actually been to a public library recently? ‘Popular, empowering and free’; ‘Gateways to better, improved lives’... I’m not sure a few computer terminals, an ever-depleted book stock and, if you like your libraries noisy, a cafe and crèche, quite lives up to the State‘R’Us brochure.

Not that Smith and the countless other library champions could be blamed for not visiting a library since the 1980s. After all, they wouldn’t be the only ones. Twenty years ago – yes, that’s right, under a ‘library-hating’ Tory government – people were making around 340million trips to the local library a year. This figure has now fallen by 60million. Or take the recent Taking Part survey overseen by the government. 

In 2005/6, 48 per cent of respondents had visited a library in the last year, which was a low figure by early 1990s-standards. Since then, however, the decline has continued, with the figures for 2010 showing that just 39 per cent of respondents were bothering to cross the threshold of their local ‘community cohesion’ centre. It doesn’t matter which survey or set of stats you turn to, the same picture emerges: libraries are no longer popular or empowering; they’re shunned and patronising. It’s no surprise, then, that library-book issues have fallen by a third since the 1990s.

‘Yeah, yeah’, the militant division of the libraries guild will say, ‘but the growing disuse of libraries stems from years of state neglect’. And it would be right if by that it means that, in real terms, investment in actual books has fallen over the past 30 years. Yet what is striking is that other areas of expenditure, from staffing to buildings and so on, have actually risen. More importantly, far from being neglected over the past 20 years, public libraries have never received so much political attention. This is in stark contrast to the preceding 150 years. From the original Liberal-sponsored, Chartist-driven 1850 Public Libraries Act up to New Labour’s coming to power in 1997, library legislation (and the attendant reviews) seemed to consist of little more than a couple of acts of legislation, one in 1919, and another in 1964. Since 1997, however, government seems to have been suffering from some sort of library-provision OCD. No sooner has one review been completed then another one starts, each in their turn attempting to redefine the role of public libraries.

Take for instance the 2003 Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) review document, Framework for the Future. Now, you’d think working out what a library’s key activity should be would be pretty easy. You know, providing books for people and, should they so wish, somewhere to have a good, attentive read without a lot of noisy distractions. But no, according to the then New Labour government, the public library had not one but threecore activities: 1) promotion of reading and informal learning; 2) access to digital skills and services, including e-government; 3) measures to tackle social exclusion, build community identity and develop citizenship. Given the weight of the ‘policy imperatives of the day’, little wonder less attention, not to mention cash, was given to the public library’s role as a book provider.

This is a familiar New Labour story. Hoping the state would provide the social bonds that an atomised civil society no longer seemed capable of providing, it set about transforming and using various public institutions to try to do precisely that. I say ‘transformed’ but that’s probably being kind. In the course of ‘including’, ‘engaging’ and ‘cohering’ people, it helped eviscerateevery public institution its fiddling hands touched. The effect has been disastrous for public libraries. By messing about with the reading-and-learning function of the local library, it removed the main reason for people to bother going.

The truth is that public libraries are in crisis. But it’s not just because of the Lib-Con coalition cutting funds to local authorities. It’s also because of the earlier, state-backed attempt to turn public libraries into a means for socialising civil society. It is unsurprising that the current rash of public-library champions were so quiet as New Labour were ruining public libraries. After all, so wedded are they to the patronising and disempowering idea that the state should be doing everything for its poor and useless citizens that they virtually cheered New Labour on as it turned libraries into community-cohesion centres.

So while the Conservative-led coalition might well be killing off the public libraries, given these once vital institutions’ philistine torture under New Labour it could be argued that the Tories, scum or not, are merely putting some of these institutions out of their misery. To defend libraries properly, to make a case for their social value, you need to make a case for the importance of their intrinsic function - that is, to provide people with access to knowledge and learning and literature. And that means recognising that public libraries in their current degraded form are not so much providing an essential frontline service as doing a grave disservice to the desire of ordinary men and women to better themselves.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.


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