“The only surprise is that public libraries have survived for so long. Books are cheap, information is widely available on the internet. Libraries offer poor service- bad opening hours, poor quality buildings – their only selling point is that they are free! Yes – they offer community space, IT and are valued by users; but most of the population are not users. If we have to chose between healthcare and libraries I know which I would choose!” (Anonymous comment on yesterday’s post)

This argument neatly sums up many of the arguments against libraries.  So neatly in fact, that before I explain the counter-arguments, one should assure everyone that it was not a plant.  A warning though –  this is quite a long riposte so feel free to scroll down for the actual news.
(1) “Books are cheap”.  Cheap is relative.  A ten-year old child who reads five books a week (I see this frequently) could not do so in all but the richest homes without libraries.  The same for a senior citizen who reads ten books a week because they are alone and cannot afford to do anything else.  The same for mum who gets six picture books out for their toddler.  “Cheap” is “cheap” only when there is enough money spare. 
(2) “Information is widely available on the internet”.  One has to both be able to afford the internet and be able to use it.  23% of the population would not have access without libraries, likely the same one-fifth that needs the information the most.  Also, while we’re on the subject, here’s ten reasons why the internet does not replace libraries.
(3) “Libraries offer poor service”.  Some of them do, and the staff need retraining or even replacement if all else fails.  Some banks offer poor service too, as do some hospitals.  If staff are well-trained and paid enough to attract good people then they should offer excellent service.  If they don’t, the management need to sort it out and there should be systems in place to ensure that they do so.  However, it is precisely this training and the pay that is being attacked at the moment. 
(4) “Bad opening hours”.  We do indeed need to increase opening hours in many branches, good point.  Opening hours are being cut due to lack of funding, not being expanded.  Opening hours should be extended, not cut.  Where branches have long opening hours, they are well used.  Branches with tiny opening hours (15 hours a week, 10 hours a week) are effectively being closed one hour at a time.  This needs to be reversed.
(5) “Poor quality buildings”.  There are many poor quality buildings.  The answer is to improve them, not close them.  If a well-used road is in poor condition, one does not permanently close the road.
(6) “Yes – they offer community space, IT and are valued by users”.  That’s actually quite a lot reasons not to close them, thank you.  Just on community space, though, …

 “The government and the council forget that people live in places like Walney. When they close the post offices, the clubs and the libraries, then the local people lose meeting places.” (Sally Whittaker, 97 years old, Cumbria).

(6) “Their only selling point is they are free!”.  They are indeed free.  The sentence seems to suggest that everything should be based on the ability to pay.  This is does not currently reflect thinking in other parts the system such as healthcare or education (or defence?).  It is indeed a unique selling point of public libraries that they exist to educate, inform and serve those without the ability to pay.  Other selling points include  professional assistance, community spaces, neutrality, help in job-hunting, training, boosting literacy and life-long prospects.

“Anti-poverty campaigner Sam Roddick, who founded Coco de Mer, said: “Cutting the libraries is cutting the poor from the little they have. It will damn our country into the kind of poverty you see in third world countries.” (London Evening Standard, 12th April 2011)

(7) “Most of the population are not users”.  40% of the population use libraries.  So, not a majority, true.  But two-fifths using an institution that the commenter clearly thinks has no use?  Seems strange. Two-fifths, voluntarily and without any national promotion for as long as most people can remember? Not bad for something that has been ignored by those in power for years. 
(8) ” If we have to chose between healthcare and libraries I know which I would choose!”.  Four things here:
  • Libraries are not for everyone at every point of their lives.  Neither are state schools.  Neither is the M1 motorway.  Neither is a general hospital.  If one can afford all the books and IT access one needs then don’t come in.  You’re a busy person with enough money, good for you.  But, like schools, like the M1 and like the general hospital, libraries are there if any of that changes.  This idea is called a safety net and it’s what a Western society is based on.  Still. 
  • Don’t compare Libraries with healthcare as if they are on the same scale..  Libraries cost £1 billion per year,  the NHS receives more than £100 billion.  In fact, the sad truth is that cutting expenditure on libraries achieves very little for councils – they’re only 1% of their budget – at maximum impact to the public.
  • Savings can be found across the board – notably with the banks, PFI and in the military (which has   lost equipment worth six times the national budget for libraries). 
  • Who said libraries weren’t also healthcare anyway?  I have had one gentleman tell me, over the counter, that he would quietly commit suicide if the library closed.  Libraries provide an support for many of the most vulnerable in society (the housebound, the lonely) and, remember, we are lucky if we are not vulnerable at some point in our lives.  The shelves are often scoured for books on health conditions, or dieting, or on keeping fit.  Libraries even work closely with the NHS on such things as “Books on Prescription” and with such groups as MIND with mental health reading groups.

The point here is that there are a lot of uninformed opinions about public libraries.  This is not surprising given the lack of national leadership over the decades and the lack of any national marketing or significant debate (up until this year at least) in the media.  Those who care about libraries thus need to inform opinion and provide the information.  Or those people who see there being no point in libraries are going to win, because they’re the ones who are holding the purse strings and, often, are in government or in a council near you.

Please sign the national petition in support of public libraries.

430 libraries (345 buildings and 85 mobiles) currently under threat or closed/left council control since 1/4/11 out of c.4612 in the UK, complete list below. Librarian professional body CILIP forecasts 600 libraries under threat (inc. 20% of English libraries).  The Public Libraries News figure is obtained from counting up all reports about public libraries in the media each day.


  • Advocacy – CILIP.  Case studies of how to raise the profile of libraries. 
  • Beware the new normal – Will Unwound.  “They want their service cuts to be invisible. That’s why full time professional librarians are being laid off. No reason why you can’t run the reference desk with one person rather than 3. Or you can just replace 3 full time professionals with 3 part time clerks. A warm body is a warm body? Why do you need a Masters degree to work in a library in the hard wired 21st century? Who knows you might even get lucky. The laid off professional librarians may be so desperate that they will hire back on in one of the part time clerical positions.”
  • Disappearing ink – The Economist.  More quickly than almost anyone predicted, e-books are emerging as a serious alternative to the paper kind. Amazon, comfortably the biggest e-book retailer, has lowered the price of its Kindle e-readers to the point where people do not fear to take them to the beach. In America, the most advanced market, about one-fifth of the largest publishers’ sales are of e-books. Newly released blockbusters may sell as many digital copies as paper ones. The proportion is growing quickly, not least because many bookshops are closing.”
  • Future of the Library – Seth Godin’s Blog.  Argues that the need for library buildings as depositories for books has gone but suggests there should still be libraries and librarians … “The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.”  … “We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.”
  • Lending books, Amazon styleAgnostic, Maybe.   “I wonder if libraries are looking better and better to publishers with each passing eBook market development. They might not get the best deal compared to companies like Apple, Sony, or Amazon, but we’ll still respect you in the morning.”
  • Public libraries are doomed  – Annoyed Librarian (USA).   “Amazon may drive libraries out of business the way it did a lot of bookstores, and the only ones likely to be disappointed are the librarians. Everyone else will be too busy reading whatever book they want, watching whatever movie or TV show they want, and listening to any music they want, all for about $30/month.”
  • Stephen Abram at Manuscripta – This Week in Libraries.   “…the opening of the bookseason in NL organized by CPNB. A conversation about the Library as an Economic Lever, emotional needs and The invisible hand.”
  • Throwing the book at school libraries – Los Angeles Times (USA).   “The school district is dumping 227 of its 430 elementary school library aides and cutting the hours of another 193 aides in half. Welcome back to school, kids.”
  • “Why do libraries matter?”BBC Radio Leeds.   Lauren Smith defends libraries.  Half a millions pounds for Wakefield libraries is too much, says interviewer – to the audible shock of Lauren who explains precisely why it is not.  Reporter then worries that no-one in long call-in is phoning up against libraries, wondering if it is a “silent majority”.

Local News

  • Bromley – Council threatens eight-year old boy with debt collector over late book – News Shopper.  Addressed to Jamie, the letter asked him to return or renew the book, before adding: “If you believe that you no longer have these items, please contact the library immediately, as you may be referred to a Debt Collection service.”  Bromley does not charge late fees.
  • Buckinghamshire – Take time to show you love your library – Buckingham Today.   “The WI wants to encourage people to visit their local library, sometime between 1pm and 7pm to borrow a book or two.”
  • Cambridgeshire – Budget consultation – Cambridgeshire Council.  “We are running an online survey to find out your views about our priorities and spending over the next five years. Please submit your views by the 7th October 2011 when the consultation will close.”
  • North Yorkshire – Families to join in fun at library Baby Days – Scarborough Evening News.   “Our libraries provide a wonderful resource for families with a wealth of information and expert advice on hand. In addition our libraries are best placed at the heart of their communities to introduce babies and toddlers to books and reading and language activities from the earliest age, providing them with the best start in life on their learning journey.”
  • Suffolk – We are listening: budget challenge – Suffolk Council.   “Like many councils, Suffolk County Council is facing a difficult financial challenge. A reduction in the amount of money we receive from Government, along with increased inflation and demand for our services, means that we have to find considerable savings. Last year, we made savings of £43 million, but over the next two years we need to save a further £50 million.” One of the ways of consulting is by visiting one of the council’s 44 libraries.
  • Surrey – Councillors discuss changes to Surrey library services – BBC.  “Under the plans, the council would continue to provide buildings, stock, IT equipment and other services but communities would take over the day-to-day running of 19 libraries.”
    • County drops plans for Molesey Library to be volunteer-run – Surrey Herald.   Council recommended to keep branch as part of the “‘Surrey County Council managed network’. Friends group says  “While the future now seems more assured Molesey Library Steering Group will remain in place and continue working until we see the outcome of the cabinet vote on the September 27.  “The strong support that we have received from volunteers, now more than 100, shows the importance of the library to Molesey.”
    • Save Surrey Libraries! – Socialist Party.    “All the threatened libraries have the lowest number of borrowers as they service mainly small, rural communities. But these are not just buildings with rows of books – they are social hubs, community and youth centres, parents and children’s centres. If they were to close there would be nothing similar in most of these villages.”