Axing libraries is cultural vandalism and a false economy

by Sally Bercow

Being partial to an Indian, I’m rather fond of The Cinnamon Club in Westminster, although its astronomical prices (multiply your typical curry house bill by four) mean it’s necessarily a rare treat. Admittedly, I’m biased – I was mid tandoori pigeon when my partner (now husband) popped the question in the Cinnamon Club nine years ago. Nevertheless, as a quick Google search will testify, the restaurant has attracted rave reviews for its gourmet Indian cuisine, its service and, not least, its magnificent venue.

The Cinnamon Club has Westminster city council to thank for its success, even if only in small part and inadvertently at that. In 1998, the Tories shut down and sold off Westminster library in Great Smith Street, one of London’s oldest public libraries. The grade II listed building was then beautifully renovated and The Cinnamon Club arose, phoenix like, in its magnificent, imposing space. In the meantime, Westminster council relocated the library (now known as St James’s) just up the road and it has proved hugely popular with local residents, workers and schools alike.

Last night, however, Westminster council voted to close St James’s Library, as of September this year. I’ve no idea if another destination restaurant will eventually arise from its ashes and, although I like eating out as much as the next person, frankly I don’t care. Like councils up and down the country, Westminster is committing an act of civic vandalism; closing libraries (over 400 are under threat nationwide) will inflict tremendous – and irreversible – damage on local communities.

The sad fact is that, thanks to the Tory-led government – in the shape of Eric Pickles – local authorities are being forced to cut too fast and too deep and, in doing so, many clearly regard libraries as an easy target. “Aha” cries your defensive local councillor “but if not libraries, what would you cut instead”?

This will not wash. It is not the local community’s job to axe services, but to show its support for those it values. And, as tens of thousands of people are proving, libraries are precisely the service that communities will fight to preserve.

I confess that I didn’t give libraries a thought for years and, when I did, I tended to dismiss them as the preserve of the white middle classes; as somewhat quaint institutions ultimately doomed to extinction in this age of Amazon and the internet. But when I had kids all that changed. Being a mum can be a lonely business, particularly if you’re new to the world of buggies and babies and your friends and family are out at work full time. The weekly mother-and-toddler story and rhyme time sessions in the local library became a focal point and helped me to meet other mums in the area.

What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, as a married, white, reluctantly middle class mum, I was in the minority. Through the library, I formed a new circle of friends who were (and, six years on, largely still are), variously, struggling single mums, living in social housing, reliant on welfare benefits – or, indeed, all three. The library provided a crucial service for us all.

What is more, in the course of using my library, I came to appreciate how much people depend on it – particularly mums and toddlers, pensioners and those who can’t access the internet at home (30% of the population) because they can’t afford a PC or monthly subscriptions. I saw first hand that people use libraries for a whole host of reasons: to study, to look for jobs (which, with unemployment rising rapidly, is more important than ever), to read the news, to borrow books, to conduct research and to meet and interact with people in their communities.

Indeed, as the libraries minister, Ed Vaizey, acknowledged himself last summer:

“Libraries have an enviable network of estate and expertise and a tribe of incredibly diverse and passionate customers; 325 million visits were made to libraries last year and an additional 113 million visits online”.

Libraries are a vital part of local communities, as are trained librarians to staff them. The idea that libraries may be able to avoid closure if they are staffed by volunteers is, frankly, absurd. After all, as best-selling author Philip Pullman has observed, if running a library was something you could do for “a thank-you and a cup of tea” you wouldn’t need to have years of training and experience.

To close libraries is a terribly false economy. Councils are taking short-term decisions without regard to the long-term cultural consequences. The reality is that literacy is the foundation of academic and social achievement and libraries are crucial in supporting it. Indeed, a recent study by the national literacy trust revealed that children who use their local library were twice as likely to be above average readers. Once a library is shut, it is unlikely to reopen and by the time councils realise what they have done it will be too late.

Before he became prime minister, David Cameron famously said that there was more to life than money. Understandably, he was pilloried by critics who thought it was easy for him to say that when he has a lot of it and others have precious little. Yet he appeared to be trying to shed the Tory party’s image as a party obsessed with material goods and acquisitiveness, which knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Returning to his theme last November, the rime minister said “from April next year, we will start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life”. Calling for a debate “about how together we can build a better life”, he declared “I do believe government has the power to help improve wellbeing”.

Quite so. Well said. I agree 100%. Now is the time to match words with deeds, promise with performance. By any standard – be it improving literacy, spreading opportunity, providing pleasure, facilitating social interaction or bolstering culture – preserving and enhancing our nation’s libraries will help to “build a better life” and “improve wellbeing”. Come on prime minister, action this day! Have a word with your cabinet colleagues, remind them of your November speech and halt the vandalism of mass library closures.

Sally Bercow is a Labour activist, writer and broadcaster.


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11 Responses to “Axing libraries is cultural vandalism and a false economy”

  1. doreen ogden says:

    Agree – and I was also of the understanding that it was illegal for councils to close libraries , some 1964 law. Am I mistaken ?

  2. Tacitus says:

    The assumption here is simple – Tories don’t believe the working class need books. After all, what use are books and culture to oiks?

    As for the middle classes? Well they can afford to buy their culture, so no need to worry about them!

  3. Neil McCart says:

    I would say it is “criminal” vandalism, and I suspect totally contrary to the Libraries and Museums Act of 1964. It makes me extremely angry, frustrated and very sad that politicians can treat our educational and cultural heritage this way.

  4. @doreen – It’s the “Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964” which says “the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

    So a single library placed in a central location which allows everyone access fulfils the critera. It doesn’t stop individual libraries being closed.

    Anyhow, libraries are past their use in the modern world. Libraries were originally set up for research purposes. They changed into lending libraries where anyone could get hold of any book and the library had to buy it necessary. The use of libraries for research purposes has waned now. It’s not totally gone, but it can be concentrated in fewer libraries.

    In the modern world with the internet nearly ubiquitous it would be better to have people requesting a book from a council run website and having it delivered. It could be argued that for some groups giving them an ebook reader and letting them download off the internet would be cheaper than providing a library which “huge” numbers of people use where huge is defined as 1% of the population of the catchement area.

    The use of libraries in providing internet access is wrong. It takes business away from internet cafes. If you still want council residents to have free access it would be better, cheaper and more efficient to give them vouchers to use as internet cafes which the business can claim off the council. Similarly with coffee morning and such like. If you want a place to allow people to hold meetings you don’t need a place full of books, you can use any building which has space.

  5. pete stapleton says:

    Local Councils behave like vandals. In my area, they chop down mature cherry trees, push over gravestones. No suprise, then, that they are attacking the library service.

  6. Haro Yousofian says:

    Brilliant comment “Councils are taking short-term decisions without regard to the long-term cultural consequences.”

  7. Dan Brown says:

    If you like libraries so much, pay for them yourselves
    Why should I the tax payer, fund your hobbies?
    I don’t expect the tax payer to pay for my lane when I go bowling, or swimming, I dont excpect them to pay for my DVDs.

    If you like libraries, form a pool of money to donate which will pay to run them.
    The tax payer should not be propping things up just because a minority enjoy them

  8. G. Tingey says:

    Far far, far too late.

    Over here, in the London Borough of What the F**k (LBWF) we USED to have an excellent central Library.
    It’s already been ruined.
    It had a snazzy refurbishment a few years ago, with LOTS of computers and visual aids and …
    But – a LOTY FEWER BOOKS than in 1964!
    What did LBWF council do with all the “spare” books?
    They pulped them.

    Rememebr: “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”

  9. Mark Allen says:

    Great article Sally!

    Tacitus- I think you may be on the right lines. They don’t want the working class educated, because then they would realise how badly they are being treated and may well start a revolution…

  10. SadButMadLad is completely and utterly wrong. Libraries are the cornerstone of the Civilised Society. Cybercafes are part of the Big (Profits for Our Friends in the Private Sector) Society that Cameron and his cronies keep banging on about.
    A library provide a wide range of services that the public need is a cultural asset and a valuable community focus. I should know, I work in one. I speak to many people who don’t cross the threshold of my branch from one end of the year to the other, but when they do, they are so glad that the library is there and tell me they would hate it if the library ever closed.

  11. vern says:

    All you guys do is disagree with the coalition party, whatever the topic! Truth is, very few of you have probably been in a library for years……except those converted to Indian restaurants!
    Find something else to moan about, it is becoming tedious

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