“Reading opens up a world of opportunities, and books are the foundation on which we can build learning. Reading should be a source of pleasure in itself as well as an essential support for increasing the life chances of young people.”
These wise words came from education secretary Alan Johnson recently as he announced that 2008 will be an official “year of reading”.
Yet, around Britain many public libraries are facing cuts, closures and job losses that threaten to destroy services crucial to promoting access to books and opportunities for reading.
Libraries are immensely popular. As a librarian from Haringey, north London, said, “It’s a beautiful thing that people of any age can come into the library and pick up a book or a newspaper.
“People don’t have to be doing any formal study.”
According to the Reading Agency, more people visit libraries than go to football matches, tourist attractions, museums and theatres. There are around 323 million visits to libraries each year.
“Libraries are one of the few places that people can go for free,” said the Haringey librarian.
“They offer a huge range of services to the community. But it is also somewhere that people can come and use the internet, get CDs and DVDs, bring their children, attend events.
“Libraries are at the heart of our communities. The libraries are welcoming to refugees who might not want to go to community centres for political reasons, or new migrants who might not have a community centre. We stock books in 20 languages.”
Many of the cuts and attacks in libraries are part of wider attacks.
Steve Squibbs is a Unison union steward in Hampshire libraries where threats of job losses have led to recent strike action. He told Socialist Worker, “There is a squeeze on local government funding and libraries often come out badly.”
Cuts have led to threats of branch closures in some areas.
Moray council, in north east Scotland, is planning to close a quarter of its public libraries despite having the fourth highest book borrowing figures and the highest computer use of any service in Scotland.
Last year the Library and Information Statistics Unit (LISU) based at Loughborough University recorded the loss of 452 library “service points” over ten years.
It explained, “Half of these are local branches, half are small service points open ten hours or less.”
This flies in the face of official government strategy.
The second way in which cuts are being made is by cutting staff, in particular trained professional librarians.
This is what is happening in Haringey where the full effects of cuts are yet to be seen, Hampshire where 27 librarians face redundancy and 17 face pay cuts, and Kent where 78 staff members are threatened with job losses.
Councils often justify this as reflecting the changing needs of modern libraries.
Steve told Socialist Worker, “Library management tried to make out that we are being
elitist by defending the jobs and skills of trained professional librarians.
“This is an attempt to divide librarians and library assistants in order to push through cuts in pay and services.”
Across Britain, there has been a slight increase in the total number of library staff over the last ten years. But the number of professional library staff in post has fallen by 13 percent from 1995 to 2005.
“One argument is that the introduction of more computers means that we don’t need the same level of trained librarians,” said Steve.
“In fact, the increase of technology in libraries means there is a greater need for help and expertise. Many people coming into the library don’t know how to use computers or how to find information.
“At the moment we are able to help them to use the computers. We give a lot of informal help – with typing CVs and with problems people are facing with the Learn Direct employment skills agency.
“Many see libraries as the least threatening part of council services and come to us for help. If the cuts go through, we won’t be able to do these things.
“The main drives for change are for nicer libraries, more internet access and longer opening hours.
“There is nothing wrong with nice library buildings. It’s also good that there is more internet and computer access in libraries. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of books, which are still our core service.”
According to the LISU, book expenditure nationally stands at its lowest level since 1995.
In part this reflects the falling costs of some books, but it also reflects a shift in emphasis away from books to audio visual loans and computer services.
The number of books available for loan has fallen 18 percent in ten years.
Steve said, “In Hampshire there has been a downward trend in book issues and visits. This is linked to the large cuts from the book fund.
“Many librarians will tell you how poor the book stock is compared to ten or even five years ago.”
Cutting qualified librarians means cutting library services – often these are projects increasing access to libraries and going into schools and community groups.
Steve explains, “In the New Forest and Test Valley area the proposed cuts will mean cutting the children’s specialists for that area from five to one.
“At the moment the team plays an important role going into schools and running events in the summer.
“It introduces children to libraries. With the cuts, one person will cover all the primary schools in the area. That’s one librarian for 19,850 children. ”
In Haringey, the cuts will hit the services that prepare resources for schools and which works with migrant communities and marginalised groups.
A librarian in Haringey said, “It’s about deskilling – getting rid of professional librarians. I think this is preparing the ground for privatisation. They want to get casual workers in to do as much as possible.”
The head of Haringey libraries was previously managing director of a private consultancy firm, Instant Libraries Ltd, that was brought in to reorganise the libraries.
“She behaves like the libraries are a private company,” said a librarian.
“Last year she was awarded the MBE for services to local government.
“This was as she was announcing job cuts and redundancies in the libraries.”
One of the government’s aims is to increase opening hours in libraries.
The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council calls for “a global, interactive information, resources and communications service, 24/7, for learning knowledge and inspiration.”
Yet the drive to longer opening hours is being implemented in many places without extra resources and in some cases is accompanied by attacks on library staff.
In Wigan this has provoked strikes by Unison union members.
Dave Lowe, a Unison union member, said, “Some 150 low paid staff in Wigan libraries took to the picket lines on Tuesday of last week after an overwhelming 84 percent vote in favour of strike action.
“Wigan Leisure Trust want to open libraries more on Sundays and are looking to pay for this by taking away enhancements to their staff.
“The staff have bent over backwards to provide a top quality service for the public and want to remain on national terms and conditions.
“The strike across the borough was solid and was well supported by the public.
“At Ashton library the whole workforce was out on strike and on the picket line.
“At Standish library the management opened up the facility to a pensioners’ reading group.
“When the pickets explained the reason for their action, the pensioners walked out giving the management a piece of their minds.
“Ashton library workers also found themselves supported by many young people who chanted slogans in support of the library workers.
“In Wigan and nearby Leigh, there were lively picket lines, with support from the local community. One striker said, ‘We provide a service to the community and all management are interested in is targets and profits’.”
The cuts and attacks are provoking many campaigns in defence of libraries and library staff and services.
Libraries are an essential resource for working class people to have free access to information and culture. People have fought for them over the generations.
Andrew Coburn from the Library Campaign, a national charity for friends and users of libraries, told Socialist Worker, “Public libraries have been seen for many years as a vital community facility.
“It is not just about books. If you are a school, university or college student, you can go to the library to study. If you are 70 and you want to learn new skills you can go and find the information you need and pick up a book.
“That hasn’t changed. Other things have changed. Many staff now can offer help and guidance with books or with finding information.”
In Haringey, north London, around 1,500 local residents signed a petition against the cuts. They stopped the closure of Hornsey audio visual library.
In Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, parents and library users are organising against plans to close several libraries.
Residents have organised a petition against the cuts.
Shona Hutchinson uses Colinsburgh library in a small town on the Fife coast.
She said that the library was a big success with book loans increasing 500 percent in the last two years.
“The library is a central and consistant part of our community,” she said. “It is part of our heritage.”
At Upper Norwood joint library, which is run by Lambeth and Croydon councils in south London, campaigners fighting to secure the funding of the library were surprised to be joined on a recent demonstration by Tessa Jowell.
She is the minister with overall responsibility for the current attacks on libraries!
For more go to www.librarycampaign.com