Leading Article: The library campaign that misses the point

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SOMETIMES THE warm, comforting conservatism of the liberal left can make the gorge rise. If Joan Bakewell, Deborah Moggach, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield and Alan Bennett are against something, it is tempting to feel that it should be defended. If they are complaining about closures and spending cuts, planning sit-ins and demanding a meeting with the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, it must be right to close and cut. And if we are talking about branch libraries in Hampstead, whose doors have never been darkened by these celebs, then bring on the bulldozers now.

Camden Council says that three of its 13 libraries are under-used and cost far more per book lent than any other libraries in London, and wants to concentrate facilities on better-resourced centres.

But hold on a minute. Branch libraries are not like cottage hospitals. Most people would rather be treated in a big hospital, a centre of excellence. But if they want to get the next volume of Animorphs for a child who has suddenly discovered the joys of voracious reading, any old library will do. It does not have to be a collage-covered community centre-cum-CD- rom multimedia Internet cafe.

So Camden should reconsider its closure plans; making libraries less accessible cannot be right. But there is a broader issue.

What is depressing about this dispute is the conservatism at the heart of the protests. Four years ago, almost to the day, a similar coalition of arts and literary stars, led by Judi Dench, Melvyn Bragg, Beryl Bainbridge and Fay Weldon, announced that it was planning to sue Stephen Dorrell, the then heritage secretary, for allowing Camden to close some branch libraries. They had been organised by the Library Association, which successfully mobilised the interests of the producers of the service - librarians. Their victory simply maintained the status quo, so that this week the same arguments could be rehearsed all over again.

It is no use simply preserving the existing library system in aspic; the interests of librarians, who want to freeze their pay and conditions and reduce their hours of work, do sometimes have to be challenged. The Internet has been a huge boon to the bookselling business, but people who cannot afford computers and books, or even newspapers, need libraries, and the new information technology can be used to empower them. What is needed is more branch libraries, open long hours, using computers to access central collections. Their core function should, of course, be preserved. Many people - of all backgrounds - remember the magic libraries held when they were children as gateways to new worlds of discovery. Students, the unemployed and the old need them. But Joan Bakewell and her chums would be doing a greater public service if they got out their placards for new libraries, new technology and new ways in which services could be delivered.

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