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The Closing of British Libraries

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned what bad shape some British and Canadian libraries were compared to American libraries. Apparently I got only part of the story, because the British situation seems to be getting even worse.

According to this column arguing for libraries as public spaces that don’t need to make a profit for someone, “it is estimated that cuts to local authorities will force 100 libraries to close by the end of 2015, with another 200-300 becoming reliant on volunteers.”

If we extrapolated that to the population size of the United States, that would be like 600 libraries possibly closing and 1200-1500 becoming reliant on volunteers. Something like that already seems to be happening with school libraries, but public libraries haven’t faced anything like this sort of devastation.

The column argues that it’s ideology that’s crushing the libraries, not any sort of budget issue, since Britain has plenty of money compared to most countries and it’s not in state of total war or anything.

The idea that there might be some worth in a public space that does not make a profit for someone or other is baffling to our ministers. It’s almost ideologically offensive. It undermines the whole philosophy behind the transformation of Britain over the past 30 or so years, where everything and everyone must justify themselves in economic terms.

This is a bit like the guy from Potsdam quoted last week, who believed that taxes should only pay for “essential services,” and I guess it’s like the Tea Party libertarians who wants to shut down the parts of government that don’t benefit them directly.

It seems the “Arts Council is at least trying to make the case for libraries in terms that the Treasury might understand — quantifying how much the British economy receives back for every pound invested long term.”

The ALA and other groups have tried to do that for American libraries over the years, claiming that a dollar invested brings back two dollars or whatever.

But there’s another way of thinking of libraries: “What if libraries simply provide pleasure, enlightenment, civilisation, respite? I can think of no better reason to save them.”

I don’t know how that will play out in Britain, but something like that seems to work better in America for some reason. I’m sure there are Americans who are swayed by the ROI argument about libraries, but surely most library supporters think about the other positive, nonremunerative things libraries do: story hours, support for children’s literacy, leisure reading for adults, Internet access for the poor, even Third Places, etc.

The library supporters are in the minority, and because American support for public libraries seems less top down than in British libraries, it’s harder to gain control over the government entities that fund them. If the federal government cut out all library funding, that would hurt libraries, but not destroy them.

Even in America, though, it seems to be the public libraries the anti-government types go for. Maybe I’m not reading the right stuff because I focus on libraries, but I never see calls to close municipal parks, for example, because they’re socialism or a waste of taxpayer money or whatever excuse people make.

Parks are probably less expensive to maintain than libraries, although maybe they aren’t. Regardless, they’re not free. They require managers and groundskeepers and various people running them and keeping them clean and tidy.

But there’s not a controversy over them the way there sometimes is over libraries. Public parks, and especially public playgrounds, are just socialism, after all, according to the anti-government ideology, giving open public space for the poor sods who can’t afford to have their own lawns and playgrounds.

Public space is bad for business, or so some people think. The enclosure of the commons in England, after all, was part of the beginning of the capitalist revolution there. All those peasants merely survived off the land, they couldn’t make money from it, so they had to go.

If the same logic is used to destroy public libraries, lots of people would be worse off, and not just the poor. I just hope the ROI fanaticism about libraries that seems to be taking over in Britain stays more contained in America.




  1. anonymous says:

    The more time goes on, the more prophetic the movie Idiocracy becomes. People do not like libraries because they prefer to keep people uneducated.

    • I truly do not understand the mind set that looks for conspiracy theories to explain the world.

  2. Did you know that Luton Borough Council, Bedfordshire, UK (LBC) is in line for an award for the most improved council? You could not make it up. It beggars belief that such an undemocratic council which is failing to provide a library service for the whole town despite millions going to the Cultural Trust from the Airport for this statutory service plus council funds should be considered anything less than in dereliction of their duty. Maggie Appleton, CEO of the Trust described 10,000 and 1,000 petitions as just signatures! Trevor Holden, CEO of Council confirmed, in writing that they see no detailed accounts so cannot know what is spent on libraries which it is the Council’s statutory duty to provide for the whole town.

    Their consultation was flawed and they are not implementing the options given, which did not include keeping all libraries. A later criteria “A positive impact on their corporate estate rationalisation” was obviously the overriding factor. They were obviously determined to rid themselves of the Wigmore and Sundon Park library buildings plus the cost of providing this service to two large areas of the town.

    LBC is discriminating against thousands of children, the elderly and infirm, those who cannot afford an internet connection at home, the unemployed who need the computers for job searches, the children for homework, plus the people who go to libraries for books and assistance from the wonderful staff..

    LBC’s idea of mitigation for the 72,000 visits to Wigmore is to open Stopsley library for a few extra hours (not Sundays). Stopsley has 4 car spaces (1 disabled) and yellow lines all around the area. Users for the 72,000 visits are directed to the No17 bus to Stopsley Do these faceless bureaucrats not know that most people drive? Wigmore has ample parking and residents are there for the supermarket, health centre, restaurants etc. therefore requiring no extra mileage or time in their busy schedules.

    Anyone wishing to express an opinion on whether LBC deserve a local government award please contact who will pass these on to the committee considering the merits. It is time this council was held to account by the voters of Luton.

    Please visit our website and sign new government petition asking that Luton Council should provide a comprehensive library for the whole town but, just as important, that the Cultural Trust should be made to disclose full accounts to the Council and the public on how the millions of public funds are spent. The Trust claims immunity under the Freedom of Information act and says that they are accountable to their own unelected trustees and provide the Charity Commission with audited accounts. These must be very sketchy as their website does not even show £200,000 lost on a fair in 2012.

    Doreen Steinberg Main campaigner for Wigmore, Luton libraries and democracy in Luton

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