Library closure threats spark campaigns across England

By Clare Lissaman
BBC News


Wigan's Labour MP Lisa Nandy has told the Commons that some libraries in the town would be forced to close because of a £1.1m reduction in funding. With hundreds of libraries across England earmarked for closure, campaigners fear the humble service may become a soft target for multi-million pound council budget cuts.

image captionCampaigns to save libraries are springing up around the country

Joseph Reynolds and his 13-year-old daughter Eve love to read.

The marine engineer pops over the road to his library in the small town of Wiveliscombe, Somerset, about three times a week.

"I can dip into a book and if it isn't really my cup of tea, I can return it and haven't wasted eight or nine quid," he said.

He said his teenage daughter "gets through books faster than me".

"She learnt to read from books at the library. The librarian knows her name and has seen her grow up," he said.

So the Reynolds family were shocked when Somerset County Council begun a consultation over withdrawing funding from Wiveliscombe and 19 other libraries.

The Conservative-controlled council needs to save £75m over three years and has proposed funding only 14 of its most used libraries.

More than 360 libraries and nearly 30 mobile services in England are under threat of closure this year as councils respond to the recession and government funding cuts, according to a collating group, Public Libraries News.

'Jewel in crown'

In Wiveliscombe, support is strong and more than 200 people crammed a hall for a meeting about the plans.

Mr Reynolds said: "Our library is a jewel in the crown of our rural community. We love it.

"We have a lot of young people and children here and to take away our library is like saying 'you're not good enough'."

image captionLibrarian Lauren Smith wants the government to give clearer guidance on library provision

Joanna Anderson said her nine-year-old daughter became "very dependent" on Wiveliscombe Library when she took more than a year off school through illness.

"It has been a life-saver for us," she said.

She said it would be very difficult for Isabel, who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after contracting a virus, to travel to libraries in the larger towns of Taunton or Wellington.

Isabel said she would be "very sad" if her library closed.

She said she had particularly enjoyed borrowing audio tapes and DVDs as well as reading Horrible Histories books and all of Jeremy Strong's children's books.

'Disproportionate' cuts

Despite passionate campaigns in support of libraries around the country, a government report in August suggested the number of adults visiting libraries had fallen steadily over the past five years.

The report, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS), found 12.8% of adults used their local library once a month. However, figures remained static for children aged 11 to 15, with about 70% being regular users.

Lauren Smith, a qualified librarian from Doncaster, said many libraries - diminished by a lack of funding - were not treated or regarded as valuable resources.

Ms Smith, of Save Doncaster Libraries, is fighting proposals to close 12 of the metropolitan borough's 26 libraries and cut posts.

'Absolutely crucial'

"The unfortunate thing is a lot of local authorities are cutting library services disproportionately," Ms Smith said.

"For example in Doncaster, the council has been asked to make 8.9% savings but we are looking at over 50% cuts to the library budget."

Ms Smith, who works at Leeds University library, said: "Libraries are not just a luxury, they are absolutely crucial for community cohesion and they are vital for life-long learning."

Doncaster Council said it had to make £73m savings over four years. A spokesman for the Labour-run council added no decisions had been made over its library review which would go before its cabinet "in the near future".

Ms Smith said with high levels of unemployment in Doncaster, libraries were a valuable resource for people to use a computer to apply for jobs.

She added: "In isolated places where elderly people have lost partners the librarian may be the only person they speak to that day and they really enjoy that dialogue and conversation."

Councils have a statutory duty to provide library services under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

But Ms Smith wants the government to give more and clearer national guidance and take greater responsibility in overseeing this provision.

Last year, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced the Future Libraries Programme - an initiative aimed at modernising the service.

He has also said any consultations should take place at "local level first" so councils could make the best choices on behalf of residents.

"I am monitoring very closely what's happening across England," he said.

"I will consider the use of statutory powers on a case-by-case basis. Local authorities have clear legal obligations, but library services must be looked at as a whole, including provision beyond the walls of library buildings."

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