THE BLOG

A Truly Civilised Nation Opens New Libraries.... It Doesn't Close the Ones It Has!

10/11/2015 12:04 GMT | Updated 09/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I love libraries. I always have.

They are universities for the masses.

Seats of learning with no tuition fees.

Places where whole new worlds are opened up for young, old and all ages in-between.

They mix one of the oldest forms of communication, words on a printed page, with the newest of computer technologies.

They signpost people to other services.

They are the great equalizers. As open and available for the very poorest in our society as for the very richest.

Or, at least, they have been.

But that is changing...and I believe it says something profoundly tragic about our nation today.

Let's look at the figures.

Or, at least, estimates as, shockingly and tellingly, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) doesn't actually appear to collate the numbers.

Since April the first this year sixteen libraries have been confirmed closed and forty have been left to volunteers to run as best they can.

Currently under threat are about eighty static and 28 mobile libraries.

In the financial year 2014/15, 260 static libraries and nine mobiles were put under threat of closure/passing to volunteers.

In 2013/14, forty-nine service points were lost; 74 were lost in 2012/13; 201 in 2011/12; and 33 in 2010/11.*

Even in those places where libraries do remain open, they've seen widespread cuts in stock, staffing and opening hours.

I believe this is profoundly shocking.

In recent years, both as a councillor and now a private citizen, I've campaigned and continue to campaign to try and save my village library in Barwell, Leicestershire.

It's been threatened with closure if a group of volunteers can't be found to run it.

At this point I'd like, for clarity's sake, to say a few words about volunteers.

I work in the charity/Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) and I volunteer in various capacities myself.

No one is a bigger cheerleader than me for the terrific and valued role volunteers play.

I commend those who have come forward to take on the running of their local library.

But, to my mind, being forced to volunteer for fear of a service closing if you don't, is the very antithesis of what it means to volunteer.

It is compulsion not volunteering.

People should not be forced into that position because of the (I'd argue mistaken) choices of politicians.

The fear is that, where volunteers have taken over and kept a basic bookending service going, many of the other services which modern, professionally-staffed libraries provide will be lost.

Things such as computers for people to use for a variety of reasons, including job seekers.

In my opinion, the VCS is there to add value not to be forced to take on whole services which central and/or local government can no longer be bothered to fund or provide.

As the figures I quoted earlier show, library closures/threatened closures are a truly national problem.

I was really honoured, recently, to have been elected a Trustee of the The Library Campaign, an independent national charity set up in 1984 to support Friends of Library groups and to campaign for improved services in publicly funded libraries.

If you care passionately about the need to retain these libraries, please do get involved.

You can find us on Twitter at: @LibraryCampaign.

This coming Saturday I'm looking forward to attending the Speak Up for Libraries Conference in London.

At that event we'll get to hear from the new 'Leadership for Libraries Taskforce,' which was set up earlier this year...attendees will be able to hear from them and we'll be able to share our thoughts with them on how we feel their vitally important work should proceed.

The Sieghart Inquiry on libraries report, published last September, called for urgent action

Chair William Sieghart insisted that the task-force be set up to get something done.

A steering group has met throughout 2015 discussing, among other things, libraries vital role in digital inclusion; staff training; the need for clear national standards; the need to promote libraries; and, above all, the need to explain to both national and local government the huge contribution that good libraries make to major social, educational and economic priorities.

Among the questions we'll be seeking answers to on Saturday are:

Are these priorities what are needed most at the library front-line? Are they being delivered?

And, even if they are, will it all be too little, too late?

The Speak Up for Libraries Conference is a unique annual event where library users, campaigners and front-line staff get the chance to meet and question the policy-makers responsible for the library service.

You can follow the day's events on Twitter via: @SpeakUp4Libs.

I'm very much looking forward to attending and will report back, here on The Huffington Post, next week with my thoughts on how it went, where the campaign stands and how we best move forward.

I certainly hope DCMS will get to hear about what's said on Saturday and will encourage those with the levers of power, both nationally and locally across the country, to pull back from the brink.

To not close any more libraries; to properly fund and professionally staff the ones we have left; and, as soon as is humanly possible, to reopen the ones wrongly closed.

Libraries help us to have a more informed citizenry, a more and better informed electorate.

What, in a true liberal democracy, can be more important than that?

* publiclibrariesnews.com

Background Information: The Library Campaign.

Mathew Hulbert is a former journalist, a former Councillor, and is a newly-elected Trustee of The Library Campaign. He writes here in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the campaign.