Friday, 7 February 2014

Still fighting to protect libraries

Tomorrow (February 8) is National Libraries Day. The day provides an opportunity to celebrate all of our libraries, from mobile libraries, to university libraries, local libraries, and national institutions such as the British Library. The WI has been campaigning in support of public libraries since 2011, but our relationship with libraries is much more intimate than that. In the 1920s, many WIs were actively involved in campaigning for their establishment, at a time when local government remained unconvinced about their value. Almost 100 years on, local libraries are once again under threat and are closing at an unprecedented rate. A recent government report on the state of public libraries – that quoted a closure rate of 90 static libraries since 2010 – was lambasted by library campaigners as massively underplaying the rate of closures nationally. Official figures published in the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s UK Annual Libraries Survey show the figures to be closer to 272. Despite the dispute over the numbers, what is clear is that libraries are closing, and that their closures leave many communities without a precious and valued community resource.

This is not just a trend confined to libraries – it’s being replicated in community facilities across the country including village shops, pubs, and post offices. In response to the erosion of important neighbourhood hubs, many communities have decided to take on the running of community facilities themselves, with organisations such as the Plunkett Foundation and Locality providing dedicated resource and guidance for these groups. According to the Plunkett Foundation, there has been a huge growth in community take-overs – in 2013 there were 300 community shops in the UK, compared to 23 in 1993. The government’s localism agenda is promoting these sorts of initiatives and making it easier for communities to take on these facilities when they are facing closure through policies such as the community right to bid. But whilst in some situations this might be a good alternative to the closure of private enterprise such as pubs and shops, is this the best focus for publicly owned facilities?

Towards the end of last year, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara sponsored a parliamentary debate on community managed libraries. The debate touched on the findings of On Permanent Loan?, the NFWI’s research into community managed libraries, and raised some important questions about the degree to which volunteers could – and should – be expected to get involved in running a library service. Of course, the WI is built on the work of volunteers, and as such, we’re an organisation that has a degree of expertise in this area. But as our research showed, asking volunteers to take on the running of a public library, lock, stock and barrel – a role usually reserved for professionals backed up by a wealth of support from local authority experts – is no easy task.

We spoke to the volunteers behind the reins of community libraries up and down the country and learned that volunteers were having to contend with a number of complex issues, from navigating health and safety obligations, to ensuring that they were discharging their legal obligations satisfactorily. All of this was on top of the day to day running the library; making sure there were adequate numbers of volunteers, funds and books. It’s unsurprising that these responsibilities led some volunteers to speak of sleepless nights. This system of library provision has grown organically, and a very likely long-term consequence of this is the development of a postcode lottery of library services, with varying levels of services, book-stock and expertise as local communities grapple to ensure that their library service continues in one form or another. Of course, those communities without the requisite capacity or skills are unlikely to be able to take on the running of their library service if it’s faced with closure.

The advent of community managed libraries comes in the wake of huge cuts in library services. To date, Wales has not suffered from the same significant cuts that have been evident in England, but in light of the recent local government settlement, it is now clear that library closures will become much more commonplace there too. In England, the Libraries Minister Ed Vaizey MP, has recently produced an annual report on public library activity for the year 2012/13. Whilst the report provides an interesting overview of developments in the library sector, it does little to assess the “cumulative effect on library services of the cuts in local authority provision” that was originally committed to at the Culture Media and Sports Select Committee Inquiry into Library Closures almost two years ago. On Permanent Loan? provides a troubling insight into what the future of the library service holds, and unfortunately, present government policies are failing to scratch the surface of a whole range of complex issues that will ultimately impact the long term sustainability of these services.

The fear of many library champions, the WI included, is that plugging the gaps with increasing numbers of community managed libraries will not and cannot present a solution to library closures in the long term.


  1. When I was a child I used the library every week and two or three times a week in school holidays. It was a wide part of my education. I used to get on the bus on my own and go to the town centre. But nowadays children wouldn't be allowed to!!!!! On my last trip to the library I met a 5 year old with his Dad and he was borrowing 5 books for Dad to read to him.

  2. Likewise when I was a child I belonged to the local library, having read most of the children's books, I asked if I could borrow some from the Adult section as there were some wonderful black and white photos of Russian ballerinas and as I was mad about ballet and went to a dancing school, I couldn't get enough of them!