Sometimes it is useful to take a step back from the fray in order to get a sense of perspective.  This chance was given to me when I was asked by a new website, BookByte, to do a summary of the extraordinary events in public libraries over the last year for them.  So, here it is, heavily summarised so as to be manageable.
War is declared (October 2010 to December 2011)
The new Coalition Government’s comprehensive spending review meant that councils had to cut their budgets like never before.  In this situation, libraries were uniquely vulnerable for a number of reasons:
So, councils up and down the country (notably Gloucestershire, Somerset, Isle of Wight, Oxfordshire, Brent, Suffolk but so many others) announced deep cuts to library budgets and to buildings. 

War is joined (Early  2011)

Then all hell broke loose.  Councillors, who by their nature are generally the opposite of library users in terms of demographic, being themselves often time-poor but money-rich, were not likely to be users themselves and so were shocked by the strength of feeling shown by library users.  There were protests galore, marches in market towns that had not seen popular protest since mediaeval times. Campaign groups sprang up everywhere, made up of people from all backgrounds and political beliefs.  Petitions of a size unheard of were handed into councils.  A hastily announced and completely uncoordinated day of protest led to hundreds of events and massive (for libraries) media coverage.

In some councils, this was enough to change minds.  Many councils who had initially thought of closing libraries, notably the prime minister’s own county of Oxfordshire, backed away.  In some others, such as Suffolk, leaders fell.  Few branches have, to date, actually been closed.  However…

War becomes Phoney War (2011)

People protest about black and white, about open or closed.  So, faced with not understanding the value of libraries and still needing to cut funding, councils became smarter.  They concentrated on the grey. So different tactics were used:

This has been a lot harder to fight.  The subject of volunteering is particularly divisive as in other sectors they are seen as an uniquely good thing.  People don’t march for three less hours on a Friday.  Many Conservative voters don’t have any problems with privatisation.
So, what we are seeing instead, in many places is a hollowing out of public libraries.  The buildings are being left standing but they are increasingly shells, with less in them to attract the user.  So, library usage declines.  So, there may be less protest next year.
When the real war begins.
433 libraries (344 buildings and 89 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.


  • Clive Thompson on why kids can’t search – Wired. “students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit—they’re putting too much trust in the machine.”.  Students are never taught how to judge information. “Librarians are our national leaders in this fight; they’re the main ones trying to teach search skills to kids today”
  • If politicians won’t pay for libraries, don’t assume that publishers will – Good Library Blog.  In which Tim Coates points out something that is obvious: universal free downloadable library ebooks would destroy the book market and so it ain’t going to happen – unless something like Public Lending Right was extended to ebooks, which is unlikely as it would cost money.  “Publishers will not make ebooks freely available – why should they? At present 80% of publishers both here and in the US are refusing to supply the public library service through the various models that are currently available. Why should they give away content so that two thirds of reading can be free and authors of the works are not paid ?” 
  • My thoughts on #savelibraries –  The author’s local library is underused. From this basis, he suggests libraries go online, acting as archives for all locally produced digital content.  However, he admits he has no idea where the funding would come from.
  • On National Gaming Day, libraries encourage children to put down book, pick up joystick – Press of Atlantic City (USA).  “I practically grew up in the library myself, so it is a little odd for me to see people playing video games in library. But with the way CDs and movies have been brought in over the years, I guess it was bound to happen,” said Woerner, 29, of Forked River. “My daughter is in enjoying this. But she is absolutely leaving here with books.”

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