Leading article: Books for all, not just the wealthy

Share
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

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Physics Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Physics Teacher required for ...

year 4/5/6

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you looking for a full...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A member of the 'Taiji Dolphin Action Group' curls up on a sheet depicting the Japanese flag, during a protest against the killing of dolphins  

Japan must put an end to the brutal slaughter and torture of its dolphins

Mimi Bekhechi
 

iOS 8 is full of shiny new features - but it's terrible news for app developers

Ed Rex
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week