Romantic fiction: A review of libraries that fails to address the real problem

 

On 3 September 2013, Malala Yousafzai opened one of the most beautiful and inspirational new public buildings in Europe: the Library of Birmingham. The Pakistani teenager who survived the Taliban said then that “pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism”.

One short year later, the Library of Birmingham faces a shrunken future with its opening hours and staffing almost halved. Holed not only by central government cuts but by the city council’s need to repair its failing children’s and school services, even this symbolic flagship founders.

Over a decade, the number of UK public libraries has fallen from 4,622 to 4,145. Volunteers run a steeply rising number of those that remain. Yet the new Independent Library Report for England, chaired by William Sieghart on behalf of the Government, averts its gaze from such vulgarities. Although it praises libraries as a “golden thread” through our lives, it has nothing apart from euphemisms about a “fragile financial environment” to offer those bereft users who have seen that golden thread brutally severed.

Instead, its call for a “national digital resource” to upgrade electronic services parrots the dog-eared “beyond books” message of every recent inquiry. Better integrated wi-fi access, e-lending and other digital facilities should certainly be a priority. So should books.

Strategic leadership could, as the report suggests, help to spread best practice – although it timidly stops short of recommending mergers between authorities. Yet polite evasion weakens even this familiar hi-tech manifesto. It beggars belief that the social cost of recent shutdowns and transfers should almost entirely escape the notice of a panel rightly convinced that “the library does more than simply loan books. It underpins every community.” This delicate oversight ignores not so much the elephant in the room as the padlocks on the door and the boards across the window.

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