Why save libraries?

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Save Minet Library - or puppies will die!
Save Minet Library – or puppies will die!

Tomorrow in South London I shall be joining various more-famous-than-me authors including Sarah Waters, Edmund De Waal, Julie Myerson, Stella Duffy and the world renowned Itinerant Poetry Library at a Read-In at my beloved local library which is threatened with closure.

And I expect the question on at least some of your lips is: “What the hell is someone like you doing sharing a platform with a bunch of arty-farty pinkos trying to save an institution as clapped-out and pointless as a local library? What has happened to your classical liberal principles?”

The short answer is that yes, quite possibly, I am a hypocrite. In the ten years I’ve lived here my children have borrowed dozens of free books which I would otherwise have had to pay for. In the same period, I’m quite sure there have been plenty of poorer local council tax payers who haven’t used the library’s services even though their money has helped fund them. You might argue that this is “unfair.”

Then again I’m not sure this is an argument you could push too far. Council tax, after all, is “progressive” – increasing according to the value of your property. So if my family has benefited more than some others from the library, well, hey, we ruddy paid way over the odds for it. And there are loads and loads of local council services we don’t use: all the outreach programmes for preferred minority groups; all the recycling and climate change advisors; and so on.

But I think there’s a much better reason why we should all – not just annoying lefties like Philip Pullman – be in favour of libraries. It’s because, at their best, they set the tone for what I suppose Kenneth Clark would have called “civilised” values. I don’t mean less “racist” or more “eco-friendly” or any of that politicised nonsense. (God knows, I loathe as much as anyone, those libraries where the Black Literature section is five times as big as the Literature section, and a thousandth as well used). All I mean is a society where the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is considered desirable, where reading is cherished and encouraged, where people can find out more about their area by exploring their local archives, where there are bright, civilised library staff on hand to help with these goals. My library – Minet – does all these things brilliantly.

Yes, I still believe that perhaps 70 per cent of all government and local spending is the most spectacular waste of taxpayer’s money. But library funding – as this excellent article written from a similar perspective in the Scottish Herald argues – is a rare example of public spending that is not only defensible but actively desirable.

The problem with libraries is not that libraries are bad but that the local councils responsible for them are too often inclined to use them as a political football. Councils use them to promote identity politics and to foment eco-propaganda; they use them as a form of emotional blackmail, knowing that when they announce cuts to libraries there will always be a wave of (articulate, usually middle-class) public outrage which they can then blame on heartless government parsimony.

But government cuts have far less to do with our libraries’ plight than local council incompetence. As the Herald author eloquently argues (and I wish it were more obvious from the piece what his name is):

It will not wash to blame central government cuts when it is clear the council demonstrates a level of financial incompetence not seen since the Weimar republic – if you begin typing “Edinburgh tram” into Google, it automatically suggests adding the word “fiasco”.

It is local councillors who need to be held to account. The choice is not, as they are anxious to present it, between funding libraries and funding, for example, care homes, but between libraries and the remarkably wasteful management, accommodation and structures of local authorities. Culture minister Ed Vaizey has little opportunity to intervene over libraries until a closure is actually announced, and unless he is advised to do so by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. But he has already gone on record actually encouraging people to protest against library closures and to make it a priority when electing local councillors – who have, after all, a statutory duty to provide a public library service.

Fortunately, large numbers of people, as the weekend’s well-mannered protests showed, are doing just that. Use of libraries has actually increased over the past decade – there were 42 million loans from British libraries in the last year for which figures are available, and Scotland’s 541 libraries and 83 mobile libraries had some 30 million visits in 2009. But many of the recommendations for improvements which were suggested to councils a decade ago have yet to be put in place: there are still six administrative stages, each of them expensive, in getting a book from the publisher to the shelf.

Councils have done practically nothing to take advantage of the savings which their purchasing power could bring (10 years ago it was estimated that that alone would free more than £12 million for buying books), nor to learn from the streamlining in ordering, warehousing and delivery which have been introduced by booksellers. No local authority should really need more than a couple of employees to oversee the management of its libraries (though one of them ought to be an accountant); the money would be better spent on librarians, so that libraries can open longer hours.

But I did promise my wife when I wrote this piece that I wasn’t going to make it political. Luckily, she never reads this blog so I think I may get away with it.

In the meantime, if any of you are in the Lambeth area from 2.30 to 4.30 on Saturday 12 Feb (tomorrow) and fancy hearing me or those more famous people read bits from our books, follow the Friends of Minet Library’s Twitter feed. Here’s the address: 52 Knatchbull Road, SE5 9QY

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