Library campaigners throw the book at local councils

  • 25 June 2014
  • From the section England
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Image copyright Google
Image caption Dordon Library has been kept open thanks to volunteers

They have triggered intense storms of protest and even, in the case of Gloucestershire, been declared unlawful in the High Court.

The Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee reported some had been implemented with insufficient regard for the needs of local communities.

Library closures, or more commonly, the threat of them, have been shown, again and again, to arouse furious reactions not only by local communities and their MPs but also among the influential literary community.

Councils under pressure to cut their costs may initially have seen libraries as relatively soft targets, only to face up to an enforced rethink.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) reported six months ago that the rate at which libraries were closing had slowed sharply, from 201 across the UK in 2011-12 to 74 the following year.

"Local authorities have worked hard over the past few years to find savings and reduce their spending, but now they appear to be finding ways of keeping their libraries open to the public," it explained.

Local volunteers

Take Warwickshire, for example.

Of 12 local libraries relinquished by the county council, 10 have been kept open thanks to the efforts of local volunteers.

At Dordon, they have even introduced dance classes as part of a much broader offer to the local community than anything normally associated with the traditional image of patient, muted librarianship and weighty tomes silently gathering dust, unopened, on antique bookshelves.

But if this is all starting to sound rather Big Society, it's time for a note of caution.

Could the net effect be quite the opposite? Socially divisive rather than inclusive?

The library at Binley Wood just outside Coventry is one of the two that have not survived the county council pull out.

Local people there were unable to summon up the volunteers or the cash to match their 10 more fortunate counterparts in other more affluent areas of the county, leaving the obvious concern that volunteer-run libraries could increasingly become the preserve of those leafier areas where people have the time and money required to keep them going.

Undaunted, Staffordshire is the latest county authority to venture in.

Celebrity support

The council's Conservative leader, Philip Atkins, is a high-profile advocate of efficiency savings delivered through smarter working, community partnerships, sharing and merging services.

He has long-trumpeted his proud record that no libraries have closed on his watch. He and his colleagues are determined to keep it that way.

But his council's next round of savings are at a level which critics, including the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme Paul Farrelly, say will make library closures inevitable.

It is against this background that the children's author Alan Gibbons launched the Campaign for the Book at a conference in Birmingham.

Literati and glitterati alike have given it their enthusiastic support: Philip Pullman, Kathy Lette, Francis Wheen, Joan Bakewell, Lee Child, Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Rosen were among the famous signatories of their petition against library closures.

Alan Gibbons will be among my guests on this weekend's Sunday Politics Midlands in its usual 11:00 BST slot on BBC One on Sunday 29 June. So too will be the Conservative MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman, and the Labour MP for Telford, David Wright.

I hope you will be able to join us as well!