In the 12 months since a surge of public protest against proposed library closures was expressed in last February’s Save Our Libraries Day [http://www.guardian.co.uk/boo
There was rejoicing in Somerset and Gloucestershire, where library closures were quashed by a legal challenge, but in Brent, north-west London, despite a determined high court action and 24-hour vigils outside Kensal Rise library, the Brent SOS Libraries campaign group failed to prevent six libraries from being boarded up.
Saturday sees another national day of library action, but users of Brent’s Preston Park library will be marking National Libraries Day [http://nationallibrariesday.o
The day will consist of all manner of author visits and read-a-thons to highlight and celebrate the service. All around the country including Oxfordshire, Doncaster and Surrey, the latest place where a legal challenge is being launched against the council [http://slamupdate.wordpress.c
Many credit the vigour of the campaigning for the fact that the tally of library buildings to have closed their doors is much lower than had been suggested. A year ago, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals predicted that Â 600 libraries could go [http://www.cilip.org.uk/news-
Alan Gibbons, who runs the influential pro-library blog Campaign for the Book [http://alangibbons.net/campai
But with financial pressures on councils now greater than ever, there are fears that the next year could look very different. Public Libraries News lists 407 libraries as being at risk of closure, with many more expected come the new budget year in April. Kent, where the library authority has chosen not to host any special events [http://www.thebookseller.com/
In addition, the move towards community-run library schemes in place of outright closures has its critics.
Desmond Clarke, a former director of the publishing house Faber & Faber, and a longtime campaigner for libraries, says the prediction of 600 lost libraries still holds good, but that 550 of those 600 may not be closed so much as moved into “community provision”.
According to Clarke, this could mean closure by default, because volunteer workforces are by nature unstable, and will face a burden of constant fundraising for running costs. “There is no blueprint to know whether community-run libraries are viable and sustainable,” he said. “It is all being done on a wing and a prayer sink or swim.”
Another theme of the past year has been the “hollowing out” of library services, as authorities desperate to meet squeezed budgets leave library buildings intact but cut back on staff, opening hours and book funds.
Durham county council has announced that 250 staff ? the equivalent of 134 full-time posts may go [http://www.theadvertiserserie
Clarke estimates that over the two years to April 2013, one quarter of the 23,700 paid library staff who were working in March 2011 (according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) will have lost their jobs.
Annie Mauger, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, said that for councils, there’s a choice between “bricks or brains” and that they are in danger of replacing a library service with a mere “book-lending” service.
“A quality service needs planning and delivery and is professional because it needs to be,” Mauger said, pointing out that librarians offer advice and support for families and parents, ensure no bias in the library’s collection, and offer access to information and the internet.
Under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, which underpins the service, the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has a legal duty to superintend public libraries and make sure local authorities are providing a “comprehensive and efficient” library service to all residents. Hunt’s unwillingness to intervene over closures has infuriated the campaigners, who have bombarded him and the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, with pleas for action.
The children’s laureate, Julia Donaldson, a staunch library champion, said that Hunt and Vaizey have been “singularly unresponsive.” The frustrated campaigners are wondering what irresponsible actions local authorities have to take in cutting public libraries before [Hunt’s] department decides to undertake an official inquiry.”
Next week may see a significant development on this front, with the culture, media and sport select committee, responsible for scrutinising the work of the department, due to start taking oral evidence in an inquiry into library closures [http://www.thebookseller.com/
High-profile authors are likely to be among those offering their views, with the inquiry likely to look at whether the closures are compatible with the 1964 act, and the effectiveness of the secretary of state’s powers of intervention. Hunt and Vaizey may also be asked to give evidence.
The campaigning must continue, Donaldson believes. On 13 March, authors, librarians and campaigners will join in a rally and a lobby of parliament [http://www.unison.org.uk/aspp
“We all just have to keep banging away and hoping for the best,” said Donaldson. “I do feel that, thanks to all the campaigning, there is now more public awareness about the plight of libraries and that more people are up in arms. On the other hand, there is always the danger of fatigue: if local authorities continue to make cuts, some people are going to be wondering: ‘Can we go through this all over again?’ It’s certainly not a short-term problem.”
Benedicte Page is news editor of The Bookseller