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Why We Need to Lobby to Save Our Libraries

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It is almost exactly 15 years since the New Labour Government in London declared that "public libraries should be 'the University of the Street Corner'." This was a noble idea which, like many things, they completely failed to achieve. Since that day the public library service has become a poisoned chalice for every minister and senior public official who has had to deal with them. To an outsider it is very hard to understand why.

Today hundreds of people will march on Parliament to protest the closure and diminished service of their public libraries all over the country. Their action coincides with the current minister for libraries, Ed Vaizey, giving evidence to a House Select Committee about local closures during the government deficit reduction programmes.

It is right and proper to blame the minister - there is an Act of Parliament which describes as precisely as the English language can that people are entitled in law to a public library service and that it should be comprehensive and efficient. If councils fail to provide it, says the Act, the local people can look to the minister to 'superintend' the service and work on their behalf to protect and improve it.

Ed Vaizey has refused to do this, as have nearly all the ministers since the act was written. Only on two occasions has the minister attempted to do the job they should, but they are overwhelmed by a desire not to interfere with the actions of local councils - and that comes from government as a whole. Much better to let a local council take the blame for the detail of cuts to public services, if you can get away with it!

The problem is that councils play the same game and see it as their job to blame central government for budget reductions which, they say, are outrageous and disproportionate.

That is fine and fun if you are a highly paid official of the state - but it isn't funny if you are a single parent who wants to help your child to love and enjoy books, or a pensioner who likes using the library as a place to read and meet friends.

Public officials simply do not understand why libraries are important - and that is because they are all of an age and an income which, for some reason, makes them believe that libraries are a thing of the ancient past. Politicians and the political class have really let people down over libraries - it is frankly shocking that ordinary, intelligent, articulate, kind people are having to protest to Parliament over an item which costs next to nothing in the national budget. But they are right to do so, and it is a mighty frustration that has brought them out on the streets.

The 'Think Tank' groups and government Charitable bodies have caused more high blood pressure and created more political correctness out of the simple library service than almost any area of public life. In endless attempts to redefine the socio-collective, technology-based nature of a public library in the 21st century, they have completely lost connection with the idea of a fine warm building, with educated and informed staff, that provides plenty of material for reading and information, as well as a place to work, if you cannot do so at home.

The public library service needs managing back to life - and the government should say a polite thank you to those many people who turn up today to remind them how important little local libraries are. I hope the sun shines on them.

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