Book lovers fear for the future of Libraryland: Readers and librarians are fighting back in an effort to save services which are threatened by council cuts. Marianne Macdonald reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE ARE signs of desperate times in Libraryland. Three book lovers in Chingford, north-east London, took matters in hand and began squatting in the Friday Hill branch library when Waltham Forest council closed it last month.

The three men called their action group Friends of Natalie, after a child who donated 50p to their campaign. They gave press conferences from a window in the library and resisted council attempts to eject them.

'We are the Friends of Natalie. We are in residence of this property from 31 March,' their press release stated. 'We have commenced an indefinite readathon. We are now the caretakers for fantasy for Friday Hill.'

Within hours they had won their battle and Friday Hill was reopened.

Libraryland is not used to aggression. But readers and librarians, some part of the Library Campaign, are fighting back against councils who slash and burn literary resources.

No one has yet used the ultimate sanction: taking legal action against a local authority for failing in its duty, under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, to provide a public library service in every part of the country and 'an efficient and comprehensive service' in England and Wales. But if the present trend continues it may soon happen.

Death by a thousand cuts is not the book lovers' only fear. Another spectre on the horizon is government proposals for contracting out the running of public libraries, or some of their services, first indicated in a 1991 Department of the Environment consultation paper.

If put into effect this could mean public libraries will be run on behalf of county councils by private companies who tender for the contract. Pilot schemes to investigate the feasibility will begin this summer.

At Westminster council in central London, corporate methods are already in place. Library services have been devolved into six 'business units'. Unit managers have influence on librarians' salaries, many of which are partly performance-related, and each library is formula-funded according to how it performs and the numbers it pulls in.

But are large numbers of libraries actually closing?

The Department for National Heritage likes to refer to the fact that the number of 'service points' - the general term for public and mobile libraries and deposit collections in old people's homes and hospitals - in England increased by 49 per cent (7,469) between 1980 and 1990.

Seventy-two public libraries closed between 1989 and 1993 in England, falling from 3,709 to 3,637. The figures would probably be worse but for the fact that many councils, mindful of bad publicity, have found other ways to cut costs; most frequently they cut the book fund, which buys new or replacement stock, or opening hours. This has the double advantage of reducing the number of borrowers able to use a library. Cynics argue this allows the councils to close it later on as an 'underused resource'.

An Independent survey has found several councils which will make substantial cuts this financial year:

Cumbria County Council will save pounds 7,500 by closing 47 of its 54 libraries for one week each summer from this year;

Greenwich in south London will save pounds 200,000 by closing East Greenwich library this year and by 'rationalising' the book fund by pounds 50,000;

Haringey in north London will cut pounds 160,000 from its library budget by reducing opening hours at larger branches and making eight staff redundant;

Sutton in Surrey will save pounds 300,000 by cutting opening hours by 10 per cent, making eight librarians redundant and cutting pounds 70,000 (10 per cent) from its media fund. Three branch libraries will close an extra evening each week;

Harrow in north-west London is cutting library opening hours by 13 per cent and the book fund by pounds 75,000 (15 per cent);

Shropshire is cutting the book fund by pounds 100,000 (14 per cent) and cutting opening hours by 8 per cent;

Enfield in north London is reducing opening hours by 80 a week and cutting the book fund by pounds 72,000. It recently closed one library;

Derbyshire recently closed nine libraries. This year it will scrap the book bus, for primary schools, and the toy library, which serves inner city areas and outlying districts. It is cutting opening hours at some branches. The cuts will save pounds 340,000.

Westminster is making cuts of pounds 390,000 by cutting 14 full-time equivalent posts, slashing opening hours at the Central Music Library in Victoria and giving non-professional staff duties previously carried out by trained librarians.

These cuts were decided despite the fact that more than half the population - 33 million - are registered borrowers. Last year 563 million books were borrowed. Between 1991 and 1992 consumer spending on books rose by pounds 100m to pounds 1.5bn.

The number of libraries in England and Wales which opened more than 60 hours a week - therefore becoming accessible to the greatest proportion of the public - fell from 229 in 1975 to 51 in 1980. But by 1990, the figure was 18.

Meanwhile, in real terms, in the period from 1980 to 1990 total library expenditure barely rose.

Those who do not use libraries often ignore the vast number of people who rely on their information sources for education, research, job-hunting, and their books, music and videos for pure pleasure.

Bedford central library, for example, serves 12,000 people a week. It offers newspapers, magazines, video tapes, maps, travel guides and computers to search for job vacancies and undertake self-education courses. But it also provides a valuable social resource. Homeless people frequently spend time there and the elderly spend hours choosing books, reading papers or chatting in the tea shop.

For others, libraries play an important role in gaining basic educational skills. For instance, Patricia Savill, who joined the adult education class at Thamesmead library in Bexley, south London, has not looked back since gaining enough writing skills to pass her driving test, then gain a fork-lift truck licence. Derek Smith recently qualified for the Approved Driver Instructor certificate by using materials at Flint Library in Clwyd.

Although reservation charges, late return fines and charges for the loan of audio-visual material are creeping up in many libraries, the public can still legally expect to borrow books for free. But this may not remain the case in the foreseeable future if the financial squeeze continues. Already the idea of charging 20p to loan each book has been canvassed.

There have been other heavy blows for librarians recently, most notably the publication of Philip Larkin's letters and a biography. The Library Association's magazine, the Record, bursts with debate about Larkin, former librarian at the University of Hull. Unfortunately his apparent racism, pettiness and mysogyny has not helped a profession plugging the image of the extrovert, sociable librarian.

One librarian, Claire Allwood, from Bedford College, wrote that when people were told her profession 'they somehow look blank and ask you if you like reading.

'Our image is timid people with dull, don't-look-at-me clothes, and, of course, glasses . . .'

But while some librarians ponder with concern the way the introduction of technology is dehumanising their libraries, in the future they may exist only in a virtual sense.

Chris Batt, an expert on Information Technology in libraries, admits this possibility. But he believes that while people may link up with a library from home using their own computer database, books will continue to be lent in the same way. 'The book as a piece of design is a very successful product,' he said. 'You would have to come up with a technological replacement you could use in bed, or on a train and which has random access in the same way you can flick through a book . . .'

He believes libraries will extend and consolidate their role in the future. But others feel the grandiose ideals of the public lending library, of providing free access to information to all, are being relentlessly eroded by increased charges, cuts to stock and decline in opening hours.

Some see a political menace in this trend from central government and local authorities characterised by secrecy. Several librarians interviewed asked not to be named, warning quite seriously that 'talking to the press can rebound against you'. As the philosopher Francis Bacon said, 'Knowledge itself is power'. Does this mean some sections of the British public face disempowerment in years to come?

(Photograph omitted)