Hertfordshire becomes the latest council to cut mobile libraries

The post office has gone, the shop, the pub - the popular van brings not only books but community life

They marked the occasion with a bittersweet party on the village green. Steve, driver and custodian of the mobile library, was treated to home-made cake and sloe gin by the villagers of Bury Green, Hertfordshire.

After choosing from among hundreds of books, children ran around the green while the grown-ups chatted, as they had done every time the mobile library visited – but would do no more. Because on 30 October, faced with central government funding cuts, Hertfordshire County Council closed its mobile library service.

The local authority needed to find £40m of savings in 2015-16 and a further £56m by 2017-18. Losing the seven book-filled vans, which attracted 2,350 regular users, would contribute £350,000 per year towards a £2.5m reduction in the council’s library budget.

“The council is facing huge financial pressures and having to find huge savings,” said Teresa Heritage, the cabinet member for libraries, while stressing the council’s provision of rural investment, online library services, community book swaps, and special library cards for pre-school groups.

Liz Lloyd-Williams's village, Bury Green, held a party for the last visit of the mobile library (Teri Pengilley)

At £14 per visit, she said, the mobile library service was relatively expensive. It did not take advantage of “technological advances”.

“We concluded that the traditional mobile service is no longer the most effective way to reach vulnerable and isolated customers.” 

If such scenes and official responses would never occur in Hertfordshire again, they are waiting to be played out in plenty of other places.

Austerity has already reduced the number of mobile libraries – the vans that bring books to the remoter communities of Britain – from 548 in the UK in 2009 to 362 in 2014, and the cuts show no sign of abating.

In West Yorkshire, Kirklees Council plans to close its mobile library service. In Derbyshire, faced with the need to cut spending by £157m, the county council’s cabinet has agreed to cut the mobile library service from 10 vans to eight.

There have been talk of cuts to mobile libraries in Staffordshire and Worcestershire, in Wiltshire and Enfield.

“The threat to mobile libraries is severe,” said a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Voices for the Library. “They are often the first aspect of the library service to disappear. Mobile libraries are essential. They continue to be necessary in a nation where social inequality, poor public transport infrastructure and a postcode lottery of public services are a hindrance to equality – about which our Government should be ashamed.”

In Bury Green, Liz Lloyd-Williams, 36, explained why she had started a petition against the closure of Hertfordshire’s mobile library service. 

She spoke of how her boys Matthew, five, and Peter, three, had loved the fortnightly visit from “Steve the librarian”, of how it had “enriched their lives” and given her memories, “of the boys sitting on the stools in the van, reading; of them choosing books I never would have thought of, and running up and down the green waving the van goodbye when it left – all that big excitement they came to associate with seeing the mobile library visit and looking at books”.

There were so many “subtle, little things”, she said, that added up to “a real portal to a love of reading, to the idea that books are fun”.

Perhaps parents would compensate for the loss of the mobile library service by buying more books for their children. But, said Ms Lloyd-Williams: “Perhaps you are going to lose this generation of rural library users, and maybe some potential book-lovers too.”

Nor, she confessed, was it all about books and reading.

“We don’t have a shop or a pub in Bury Green,” said Ms Lloyd-Williams. “The mobile library was our only regular means of bringing the community together. It was a social thing: people chatting on the green, the older members of the community meeting the younger residents; the kids choosing a book and running around with friends that they might not see regularly.”

But, of course, her 647-signature petition has been to no avail, which  is particularly difficult for those growing old and possibly isolated in a village whose bus service had also been reduced. 

“It was one less enriching part of life to look forward to, when you might not have that many in the first place,” she said.

Bury Green, she stressed, was far from being the county’s most isolated village. “And we’re just one community among many in Hertfordshire.”

Indeed they are. As The Independent on Sunday followed another mobile library, van F, as it trundled along the narrow country lanes for the last time, we heard tales of people crying during their final visit, of others vowing not to go to the nearest town library – because that would be “colluding” with the cuts.

We heard fears that those elderly people who might be entitled to the council’s newly “enhanced” home library service would instead not want to be seen to be “asking for help” by requesting a delivery of books to their doorsteps.

We met Doreen Sansom, 95, in the village of Preston. For the last time, she surveyed the books – everything from Jeremy Paxman on the Great War to Judith Kerr and Mog’s Kittens, by way of Danielle Steel and leaflets advertising the activities of a myriad local groups. We asked about that enhanced home library service for people with disabilities or mobility problems.

Liz Lloyd-Williams, Peter and Matthew (Teri Pengilley)

“It won’t be the same, will it?” said Mrs Sansom. “It will just be one person delivering me books, whereas this mobile library… The village shop has gone. We haven’t got a post office. This is where we stop, say hello and swap gossip.”

As if to prove her point, Shirley Cooper, 58, a teacher, came to return her books for the last time, and immediately joined the conversation.

“It’s devastating, isn’t it?” said Ms Cooper.

“What,” wondered Mrs Sansom, “are the nursery children going to do now?”

The under-fours from the village nursery had provided the mobile library with lively and very welcome regulars.

“For young children, the mobile library is such a good idea,” said Mrs Sansom. “It’s such a good way of getting them interested in reading.”

As well as working as a civil servant and a Red Cross nurse, she had been a teacher. And what, we asked, had she taught?

A wry smile, a firm voice: “Young children. How to read.”

She negotiated the library steps, put the final batch of novels into the bag attached to her walking frame, and took one last look.

“I am,” she sighed, “feeling positively mournful today.”