Boyd Tonkin: The struggle on the shelves

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The Independent Culture

If a country wished to commit collective suicide, how would it set about the task? First, given its slender natural resources and absolute dependence on high levels of knowledge and skill, restrict access to advanced education to an already-favoured elite. Deepen entrenched class divisions by choking off entry into the professional strata via the cost of study. Featherbed mass media that promote passive consumerism, run by a few billionaires. Give those billionaires a veto over cultural policy. Kill off expectations of rising via merit, talent or hard work by stuffing all key institutions with the inheritors of wealth and privilege. Pacify the rest of the populace with lotteries and celebrities. And do everything possible to starve and break the system that for 150 years has, whatever the quality of local education, granted all citizens a chance to discover new horizons: the public library network. If the increasingly abject culture secretary Jeremy Hunt can take a break from licking Rupert Murdoch's boots, he might reflect that the Coalition's policies may damage his nation's interests in ways that a hostile power could scarcely even imagine.

Sifting the local news about library closures – with roughly 400 in immediate danger – feels a little like hearing the reports from the front lines of some cultural Western Front. In one salient, the shells fall and the casualties mount; in another, good news of reprieves and rescues trickles out. Somerset county council, which had planned to shut 20 out of 34 libraries, will now close only 11. But Oxfordshire still aims to eliminate almost 50 per cent of its branches.

Heroic rearguard actions suddenly take the battle to the enemy. First in Buckinghamshire, then on the Isle of Wight, coups by local activists have cleared the stock of branches in "mass borrows". Last Saturday, at the Lord Louis library in Newport, 7000 withdrawals emptied the shelves. Fittingly, the protestors made their point by starting with the "crime" section. For the Isle of Wight, criminally, intends to cut council funding from nine out of 11 branches.

Meanwhile, the ministers responsible for making sure that local authorities fulfil their legal duty to provide a library service pass the buck to town halls. In a state that really respected municipal autonomy, and funded councils accordingly, that might make some sort of sense. In one as fiscally centralised as Britain, it looks more like a hand-washing, Pontius Pilate dodge.

Yet campaigns to defend the status quo can never be enough. Those of us who have hung around the shelves for long enough to remember the Thatcher-era austerity of the 1980s will have shared the oddly cosy "fight the cuts" mood of that time. It gave protestors the rosy glow of righteousness while – in most cases – making precious little difference to the outcome. In Britain, the defence of public goods can feel like a deeply conservative mission. Library supporters need to embrace reform and innovation as boldly as let-it-rip free marketeers.

One figure has flourished as the modernising four-star general in this fight. Tim Coates, former Waterstone's chief and now consultant on public-library policy, remains the key strategist to watch. Today, in the wake of local unrest, he will address Somerset county councillors. His advice on how libraries can do more, do it better, and still save money deserves keen scrutiny. For it seems to work.

Hillingdon – his best-known success story since its renovation programme began in 2007 – has no plans to close branches. Visitor numbers have grown. For all the eye-catching innovations on the west London borough's 17 sites (Starbucks and Macs), the council insists that "Our libraries look like libraries, not activity centres or hubs". Books still matter. And the Coates formula – smart stock control, lower backroom costs, staff initiative and welcoming design – makes strong sense. He reckons that London libraries alone could save £50 million and still thrive.

To take such ideas seriously does not mean succumbing to the cuts agenda. Rather, it gives campaigners the chance to wrongfoot the axe-wielders with fresh thinking that promises both efficiency and impact. It should also allow them to counter the insidious belief that, if local people want to keep services alive, then volunteer-run branches are the only game in town. Library defenders need to outsmart the butchers, not just wave their bleeding wounds.

Repairs to the weakest link

As this column has never tired of pointing out, books coverage has been one of the weakest links in BBC TV's claim to act as a full-service public broadcaster. Now, with a "Year of Books" just announced, a brighter prospect beckons: for 2011 at least. Anne Robinson (right) will host a "My Life in Books" season with famous names (Jeanette Winterson to Trevor McDonald) prior to World Book Day. The feeble Review Show will now devote one programme each month to books, with Faulks on Fiction giving Sebastian a front-man role. One-off documentaries, a Stephen Fry series on language and a Dickens season wait in the wings. Good work – but books aren't just for one year...

A double shot of poetic success

Not since the late 1990s, when Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney alternated victories, has poetry made such a splash at the Costa (formerly Whitbread) book awards. On Tuesday, the overall prize went to Jo Shapcott for her collection On Mutability, a year after Christopher Reid's triumph with A Scattering. Shapcott won with a volume of poems that, for Carol Rumens writing in these pages, "translate breast cancer's mutations and terrors into fruitful and humorous accumulations of paradox, play-science and metamorphosis". Once again, an awards process often criticised for its over-reliance on celebrity judges has ended in honour for the most demanding of the literary arts. Andrew Neil, chair of the final panel, gave a clue to their thinking when he made a stirringly feminist speech that saluted "the triumph of the female spirit" and proclaimed the 21st century as "the century of women". So, Andrew – high time for male politics presenters to step aside, then?