Leading article: Books for all, not just the wealthy

Related Topics

Let us not be naive. This newspaper does not agree with the depth and the speed of the Government's public spending cuts. But we accept that public spending should be cut, and that there are, in practice, few areas of expenditure that are unanimously agreed to be superfluous. So it is perhaps inevitable that public libraries should be included in the search for savings.

What is more, we also believe that local councils should make decisions about local services, and that councillors should be held accountable locally for them.

Those provisos entered, there is something different about libraries. Today, as The Independent on Sunday launches a new-look, bigger and better books section in the main newspaper, we also carry a special report on the threat to the nation's libraries.

Libraries matter because they are portals of imagination, learning and information, and thus represent values that the coalition government claims to hold dear. What is the Big Society if it does not encompass a public library in which children, regardless of the means of their homes, can have their horizons widened? What do fairness, social mobility and "we're all in it together" mean unless everyone can gain free entry to the world of knowledge?

So, while we recognise the danger that the campaign against library closures could lend itself to sentimentality, particularly about a past golden age that never existed, and to a conservatism seeking to preserve said golden age, the principle of coming together to share knowledge and the joys of the inner world of the imagination is a powerful one. In a materialistic world, the library stands for something intangible that lies at the heart of a healthy society.

Roy Clare, the outgoing chief executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Executive, which is soon to be abolished, may well have been right to declare in his swansong: "Public libraries will not be preserved by wishful thinking and aspic." But he is quite wrong to suggest that today's libraries fail to "serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class". That is not a fair description of libraries; but it could be a early warning siren for what might happen if the cuts are badly handled

Many, perhaps most, library services around the country have been innovative in making themselves less intimidating, and in reaching people who find it hard to get to traditional branches. We are not necessarily opposed in principle to the use of volunteers to augment the service – although that risks exposing the idea of the Big Society to further corrosive scepticism, by suggesting that it is merely a rhetorical smokescreen for cuts.

However, the great strength of libraries is that they are inclusive, in the sense that very few families can afford to buy all the books that the child who is an avid reader might want to try.

That is why the most significant finding of our special report is that the proposed cuts seem likely disproportionately to affect deprived areas. In Oxfordshire, for example, the county council intends to close the Blackbird Leys library, serving a large and disadvantaged housing estate, while the libraries in neighbouring Witney and Wantage, used by constituents of the Prime Minister and Ed Vaizey, the Libraries minister, are safe.

This is the most important criterion against which proposed cuts should be judged: the principle of inclusion. And, while this should be the prime responsibility of local councillors, central government has a role. After all, most of the money for libraries comes through the Treasury. So Mr Vaizey should be held to account for the kind of cuts to libraries that he was happy to condemn as "cost-driven vandalism" when he enjoyed the carefree life in opposition.

If there are to be cuts to libraries, Mr Vaizey, his Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, and local councillors around the country should do their utmost to ensure that they fall in areas where people are most able to make up for the reduction.

This is part of the larger argument about public spending cuts upon which Nick Clegg has staked the future of the Liberal Democrats: that they can be made in such a way that protects the weakest, and thus prefigure a fairer and better society that can emerge from the other side of deficit reduction.

This is not just about making sure that library cuts do not hit the poorest hardest. As is so often the case, the credibility of the coalition's claim to fairness is at stake.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness