Council cuts brought to book

As libraries across the country have their budgets slashed, Esther Oxford finds even a state-of-the-art example will not be spared

From the outside, the building looks like a brash American tourist hotel: a showy Nineties front attached to a tacky Sixties office-block back. Inside there is more of the same: seductive lighting, sky-lights, plants, modern sculptures. But this is no hotel, nor is it a spanking- new sports centre or swish shopping complex. It is a new civic centre in the middle of one of London's most dismally staid boroughs: Merton. And within, right by the window, so that everyone can see, is the state- of-the-art Morden library - Merton's gem.

Step inside and nothing appears amiss. Children play quietly, adults browse, teenagers do their homework. But behind the scenes there is turmoil. Nothing to do with the mad-looking woman who smells of urine; nor the schoolboy who looks like he has a book stowed up his jumper. The turmoil is raging over budget cuts. From 1 April, 12.5 per cent of the borough's £2.6m library budget will vanish.

This means that three staff at Morden library will be made redundant and it will have to close its doors at 1pm on Thursdays instead of 7pm. It also means that expenditure for books (usually £450,000 borough-wide for the year) will be cut by 28 per cent.

The London borough of Merton is not the only local authority to suffer. A confidential survey of two-thirds of the country's 108 public library authorities, organised by the Library Association, has found that authorities across the country will be expecting cuts ranging from 2 per cent to more than 10 per cent of their annual budget.

Twenty-nine authorities plan to make at least 234 full and part-time librarians redundant. A further 12 plan to close a total of 42 branch libraries during the next two years.

Rather than cutting costs by reducing its fiction fund, as other libraries plan to do, Morden is to cut back on student text-books, children's books, book binding (used to protect popular books) and by buying paperbacks rather than hardbacks. Penny Parker, the borough's head of libraries, says: "We can sustain it for a year, but if the cuts go on beyond 12 months there will be a rapid decline in the condition, up-to-dateness and stock of the books."

The wide range of videos, audio-cassettes and CDs will not be affected, although rental prices will double. Nor will the library's Indic titles (books written in foreign languages), nor large-print books.

But the role of the library as a place where disadvantaged groups, such as the unemployed, can retreat, is slowly being dismantled. Soon the 1,500 daily visitors will have to find somewhere else to go. "They'll probably cope," says Mrs Parker. "People can put up with an awful lot, you know."

Downstairs in the browsing rooms, the borrowers are oblivious to what lies ahead. Over by the window, in a warm, modern "lounge", two teenagers are talking. Their use of the library shows how times are changing. "Books?" says Daps Fagbo, a chirpy Nigerian with a bandanna tied round his head. "We're here to talk about Davina's boyfriend."

"I come here because I can't discuss my boyfriend at home without causing a war," explains Davina Raghunandan, 18, who is at sixth-form college with Daps. "It is a great place for meeting people, too."

Daps, 21, says he likes the video section, and does not think he will mind the cut in books. "I've only ever taken one book out in the two years I've been coming here."

Perusing the fiction titles is Mary Burton, 70, a former local government officer. She is an avid reader, taking home 15 to 20 books a week. She appears nonplussed when told the library will soon not be open on Thursday afternoons. "I'd have thought Monday would be a better day to close. It would save heating the building up again and would give the staff two days off in a row."

What will she do instead? "Oh, I'll go shopping in the morning then go home afterwards and feed my cat. Or I might not feed my cat. Depends on whether she has eaten her breakfast."

Alternatively, Mrs Burton could go to one of the borough's eight other libraries (three big, five small). She would probably prefer not to: according to Davina and Daps, the older libraries are "dirty, cold, disgusting and old-fashioned, like churches".

The old ``home'' of Morden library was not much better five years ago. Then, in 1990, the council decided it wanted a "human face" for its new civic centre and offered Morden library some premises. The hustle and bustle of a friendly new library would make the whole centre feel more "used", the council reasoned.

More books and more staff were brought in. Money was suddenly made available to set up schemes. Delighted, Mrs Parker and her staff set up listening points on the audio floor, a parent/child corner and an international genealogical index for visitors eager to trace their family tree.

The number of visitors to the library doubled. "We've had librarians from all over the world visiting us to see how we've done it," says Mrs Parker. Encouraged, despite the news of the budget cutbacks, she has started to plan for the future: reader access to the Internet; the development of an information superhighway; the installation of CD-roms.

There are also plans to expand the mobile library service and to set up an Open Learning Centre where unemployed people can update their skills by learning how to operate computers. "We're excited by the future," says Mrs Parker.

But she adds that she is dismayed that the library is having to cut its opening hours and that it will no longer be able to honour all the commitments laid down in its own ``citizen's charter'' - a document she herself wrote. ``From April onwards we will no longer be able to stock the top 20 bestsellers within four weeks. Nor will we be able to supply books to readers who request them quite so quickly. And if anyone telephones with a query, we will respond within five days, rather than one.''

It was getting late - dinner time. Up on the audio floor, Peter Cox, an aspiring pianist, was sitting by the radiator gazing wistfully out of the window. He looked sad to hear the place will be closed on Thursday afternoons; he likes to use the library for reference books and the newspapers.

"Libraries have been attacked throughout history," he says thoughtfully. "Books get burnt and destroyed, people want to move on. Nowadays society wants to be fed with cars and televisions and videos, so we end up with few books in our libraries and a whole lot of videos."

Mr Cox cannot see history repeating itself. "In times past the libraries always bounced back." This time round, he reckons, it will be different.

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