Local Libraries Face Cutbacks

Little girl flicking trough books in a library. Natural light.
Little girl flicking trough books in a library. Natural light.

We all know how important it is to get our children reading – so why are hundreds of libraries across the country facing cutbacks?

Activities like Rhyme Time and Story Time, so crucial for getting small children into libraries and exposed to literature at an early age, are facing extinction in some places unless volunteers come forward to run them.

Libraries are facing closure or a reduction in opening hours – and the only solution seems to be to bring in more volunteers.

And who exactly is supposed to volunteer for all this? Mums? No, we're all supposed to go back to work, remember? Grandparents? No, they're too busy doing all the childcare for their grandchildren...

Libraries are so crucial for children. I don't know how my three brothers and I would have survived without our weekly trips to the library. We'd devour as many books as we could while we were there, and take home as many as we could get on our cards.

Then there are Rhyme Times – introducing our tiny tots to a world of language and literature. Free of charge. Run by dedicated, brilliant, experienced staff, who are loved by the children.

Oh, don't get me started on the tedious old farts in the Daily Mail who want to ban Rhyme Times. Who do you think is going to keep your libraries alive if they don't attract young people?

Laura Swaffield, chairman of the Library Campaign, says: "While these children are having a good time they're also learning literacy skills along the way. It's not just about them having fun.

"The Government's social mobility commission set out five key ingredients of parenting – talking, reading, playing, cuddling and communicating. These sessions explore all those. Some parents don't find it particularly easy to spend time with their children in that kind of way – but this is a nice way to do it."

She points out that volunteers may not have the same qualities that the experienced staff possess.

"Working with children and relating to children is quite a skill," says Swaffield. "Volunteers may have some of these skills but very likely don't have all the skills necessary."

What's really worrying, she says, is the likelihood that many smaller, less glamorous libraries, will disappear altogether, leaving children in some communities bereft of that glorious experience.

"It's very widely accepted that reading for pleasure is the best way to get children literate," she says. "Losing yourself in a book is the key to real literacy. Libraries are so important for children – a kid can go there and choose the book they want and can experiment with all sorts of different books."

So if it's so important, why are libraries becoming endangered species? Well, North Yorkshire County Council says it needs to cut £3.6m from its libraries budget by 2020.

It's proposing to turn 20 libraries over to the community, and even larger, core libraries would be run partly by volunteers.

Julie Blaisdale, assistant director of library and community services, says: "We will no longer by able to sustain the opening hours without volunteers.

"What we'd really like to encourage is to bring volunteers in to help us run things like the Rhyme Time and Story Times. We don't see these activities as the preserve of paid staff.

"There will be a degree of professional support – we don't just hand volunteers the key and say 'here's a library'. There will be supervision and training."

However, she acknowledges: "There is a degree of risk in this strategy. We're not being complacent about it. Some of the community led and community run services we've got have had huge amounts of work to recruit these volunteers."

But she warns: "If we don't get sufficient volunteers coming forward, we would have to reduce opening hours or close some of the smaller libraries."

It would be nice if they didn't have to cut all this funding though, wouldn't it? "Well yes," says Blaisdale. "But the county council has to find another £74 million of savings over the next four years and we're all being asked to find our share."

Only this week in Liverpool, the city council has dropped plans to close 11 branches after a group of high-profile writers pleaded with them.

What's their solution now? A mixture of reduced opening hours and community volunteers. A cynic might suggest that threatening closure was a great way to make community libraries sound really appealing.

To be fair, community libraries have been successful in some areas. Jeremy Clynes spearheaded a campaign to run Garden Suburb Library, in Barnet, following the council's announcement of its plans to close the service in 2011.

However, he says while their project has been successful, it may not work everywhere.

"Every community library is totally different from every other one," he says. "Some don't have any money at all, some have been given funding. Even within the same borough, the experience can be very different.

"Many others will have had much more difficulty setting themselves up than we have had. This is a unique area here; we were able to appeal to the residents. We're also quite a wealthy area and quite an educated area. Other areas have found it very difficult to get volunteers.

"These libraries are reliant on the community. At the moment we're very lucky. We've got a very loyal set of volunteers and a very good set of local authority managers. But at some point we'll retire and unless other people come along this will all collapse."

And that's our children's library service of the future – dependent on good luck, good will, a wing and a prayer.

What do you think? Do you use your local library with your children?