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Why we need libraries

Today - Saturday 8 February 2014 - is National Libraries Day. It rounds off a week’s worth of celebrations in school, college, university, workplace and public libraries across the UK. Tweeting with the #NLD14 hashtag and visiting your local library.

In this post, Lousie Whittle explains what libraries mean to her and how cuts to library services are affecting people:

“When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began.” Rita Mae Brown

I remember this comment from a couple of years ago regarding the importance of importance.. “It’s the only local place you can come without spending money,” she said. “It’s local and friendly. And it’s classless.”

I like libraries, used them as a kid, teenager and adult. Even worked in them. During my childhood, I spent a lot of my time reading where I was able to lose myself in the written word, conjure up fantasies and develop my own imagination.

It was my place to be creative and feel safe from the world outside. I have good memories of those times. It was a place where I started to understand the importance of knowledge, and learning. I certainly gained more visiting the local library then my formative years at primary school.

To me they are a basic socialist demand. People get access as well to technology such as the computers and the internet. Therefore libraries are a fantastic public free resource and a necessity for learning and support.


Since the Coalition government took office in May 2010, there has been a concerted programme of cutbacks in local government funding and this has had a clear impact on public libraries. Net expenditure in the UK public library service declined from £1,066,410,000 in 2010-11 to £1,011,506,000 in 2011-12 and to an estimated £963,284,000 in 2012-13


In addition to the decline in the number of libraries and mobile libraries, there was a reduction in library staff numbers, in the number of library visits by the public, the number of ‘active borrowers’, the overall number of books issued, the number of web visits, the number of terminals with library catalogue and internet access and the number of electronic workstations available to users per 10,000 population.

Libraries are becoming more remote, with less staff, more volunteers, changes to terms and conditions, increased stress, library closures, cuts to core and other services, and so on. I know from experience that whenever cuts need to be made library information and services become vulnerable (certainly when I worked in higher education) and it is no different in local government.

When I first visited Bristol Central Library, I was amazed that there was not an issues/returns desk. There’s always one. Instead there were machines. Staff were lurking around as they, no doubt, come up against puzzled borrowers scratching their collective heads about the mechanics of these machines.

I would be interested to know how useful they have been? More efficient? These machines are predicated on barcodes for the item to be successfully issued but then not all items, books mainly, have a barcode certainly ones that live in a store/stack/reference room many not been catalogued and given a barcode.

Certainly, my last visit to that library that precisely happened. The books I wanted were in the stack, loanable but no barcode. Therefore a human had to issue the books for me as the machine was incapable. It’s a small point but it’s telling too.

Cut staff put in machines…Deskilling and destaffing is the name of the game regardless whether these machines are any good. It reminded me of the self-service machines in supermarkets which also confuzzle people, likelihood of breaking down and there’s always staff on hand to keep an eye on them.

No doubt what your average capitalist wants is a staff free library, certainly the one in the centre of Bristol has been severely reduced and I see very few staff. So many libraries starved of funds, stock and staff are a sad and depressing sight to behold. It puts people off therefore it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Angers me as the library I frequented as a child was inviting, stocked with so many books, magical and incredibly informative…. million miles away from the drab libraries of today.

In Bristol Council’s Revenue Budget 2013-2014:

Libraries – agreed programme of change through Modernisation of Bristol Libraries, including self service, shared buildings, core offer

Full year saving associated with successful implementation of the self service project – £200,000

But like any slash happy public services cutter… they will come back for more…. ‘savings’…

And in the current proposed cuts budget:

There are 1.7 million visits to Bristol libraries each year and we will work directly with casual visitors, the 15% of people who have a library card and the with the wider population whom we would want to use the service in order to jointly design the future shape for Bristol’s library service within the changed financial limit.

This reshaped service will be designed to better meet the needs of our communities in the 21st century. Further consultation will be undertaken in due course.

They expect to save over £1 million during 2016/17

The plans for Bristol Central Library get even more bloody strange and so utterly wrong:

Councillors have decided not to stand in Mayor George Ferguson’s way and allow plans to convert the basement floors of Bristol’s Central Library into a primary school to go ahead.

But they rapped council officials for not consulting fully with people about the plans.

Two councillors, Richard Eddy (Con, Bishopsworth) and Rob Telford (Green, Ashley) “called in” the mayor’s decision, which prompted a specially-convened committee to discuss the issue tonight.

They could have decided to refer the matter to full council for another debate but they unanimously decided that no further action should be taken.

One of the main reasons for the call-in was the lack of consultation. It emerged during the debate that council officers had advised a consultation exercise was not necessary because the area which is proposed for conversion is not open to the public.
It’s not an appropriate venue for a school (apparently, a free school). How can you have a school in a basement of a library?
Opponents of the scheme have claimed that the move, which will see the removal of the reference book-stock to B-Bond almost a mile away, will “desecrate” the prized service of Bristol’s Central Library and could ultimately lead to the re-location of the historic and cultural asset.

And worryingly Mayor Ferguson referred to Barnet Council.

“Central Library is as safe from closure as anything is, but we need to look at the whole library service. Many cities have already been through this. In Brent, they have radically altered their service – reducing the number of libraries but improving the overall service.

Funny as well … the new fancy-schmancy…. ‘Strategic Director for Business Change‘, Max Wilde… serial outsourcer had involvement with Barnet, Suffolk and Sandwell. Suffolk Council had an idea for a “virtual council” which collapsed. Ferguson also maintained way back in 2013:

“I expect this to include a full review of council staff terms and conditions.”

Barnet Council has been attacking trade union rights. Is this what Ferguson et al have got planned for the council now they have a serial outsourcer on board?

On February 8th it is National Libraries Day.

In Bristol…

At Central Library, the Book Hive, the amazing animatronic sculpture celebrating 400 years of libraries in Bristol, will be at the centre of celebrations and graphic novelist Joff Winterhart and writer Sara-Jane Arbury will also be on hand to help visitors express their love of libraries in words and pictures.

In the afternoon, Central Library staff will lead a guided tour behind the scenes of the beautiful listed building. Advanced booking is essential for the tour; please contact the library for details.

‘Beautiful listed building’… Wonder how long that will last with the budget cut proposals. If not now… later.

Ferguson wants an arena which is all about profit. Libraries don’t boost corporate profits - instead they add value to the lives of people in a quiet and unquantifiable way. Libraries are an important function in this society, they are a collective means of reading and learning, and that access should be equal

As Mark Twain once said

“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”

The cuts will have an immeasurable impact on learning. Libraries give equal access to education but the erosion due to cuts will create a society where the poor will not have the same access as people with money.


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