Leading article: Books for all, not just the wealthy

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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.

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