The BBC devoted a ten minute segment of Newsnight (at 26.51-38) to the fate of public libraries  last night on the occasion of Alan Bennett speaking at Kensal Rise Library.  It was a major hit on Twitter with great support being shown there for the pro-library cause. The Mail has also covered the story.
The reporter at Kensal Rise was, unfortunately, sneering about public libraries, relating somehow the fate of a vital community resource to a hypothetical Richard Curtis comedy called “Libraries Actually”.  The well-known actress Tamsin Grieg was allowed a short moment to point out the damage to small communities that closing libraries would have before she was invited to have a laugh about it.
The main event, Alan Bennett, pointed out that privatising libraries has been on the Conservative agenda for 15 years, that all children do not have a computer and many do not have access to books. “Llibraries have to be local, they should be handy, they shouldn’t need an expedition”.  He repeated his key phrase that “closing libraries is child abuse”.  This is an unfortunately over the top quote that was used against him later on. On the question of why Alan was bothered about libraries, the reporter denigratingly said that libraries were not the sexiest of causes except if one was Joe Orton.
Kensal Rise is one of six libraries (half of the total) in Brent (the BBC made clear it was “labour-controlled”) that will close. To a deliberately old-fashioned soundtrack of “Pennies from Heaven” a council statement said that the other half would improve.
The report then went to the studio, with the pro-libraries side being represented by the author Tim Lott and the anti (quite how anti became very quickly apparent) Mark Littlewood from the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Tim Lott pointed out that libraries provided an area of quiet and that they helped him considerably when he was growing up in poor area, also pointing out that children still need that space due to a lack of computers/room/books at home.  Kensal Rise, he said, was an example of a community coming together to protect a vital resource.  He did accept that cuts needed to be made, even suggesting an alternative plan to running the library via volunteers, a task made easier by the fact that there is no rent to be paid as the building is owned by All Souls College, Oxford.
Mark Littlewood immediately started attacking the very concept of public libraries, saying that they are “increasingly an anachronism” and that they are not the best way of getting reading materials to people.  When challenged on this, he suggested that people should buy secondhand books on Ebay and that 2 in 3 households have a computer.  That this meant 1 in 3 people would not be able to have access to books even using his own statistics did not seem to be problem.
Mr Littlewood then continued.  He accused library supporters, entirely wrongly, of not wanting a single library, anywhere, to close, regardless of the circumstances.  When challenged on where people would go for a space to study if libraries were to close, he suggested “comprehensive schools” could provide space and computers when the teachers went home and that libraries sat on “prime land” that could presumably be sold off. He pointed out the falling use of libraries among adults but strangely did not mention their increasing use by children.  
His finishing comment was truly impressive.  He argued that Alan Bennett was rich and so that if he really wanted to support the Kensal Rise campaign, he should pay for it out of his own pocket.  This tied in with his argument that if communities really wanted such a (to summarise) underused anachronism taking up expensive property and did not fancy using the local Comprehensive at night instead, then they should volunteer their time and money to do it themselves.
The complete failure by the chief of the IEA to understand, or even to accept the reason for the existence of, public libraries is terrifying.  The Institute is very much admired by the Conservatives and its thinking is very influential.  It may help explain why the Government has so failed to do anything effective in supporting libraries.
The bias shown by the BBC against saving libraries is equally troubling.  It may be that it is an attempt by them to show that, after allowing Zadie Smith a prime spot defending libraries on Radio Four, they need to balance things up a little.  It may also show that, like Mr Littlewood, many of them (to paraphrase Philip Pullman) in that organisation fail to understand what they seek to destroy.

To help raise money for the campaign to save Kensal Rise Library and other libraries in Brent, see Brent Save Our Libraries.

451 libraries (383 buildings and 68 mobiles) currently under threat or closed/left council control since 1/4/11 out of c.4517 in the UK (for the complete list by area see the page “Tally by local authority”)