One of the saddest features of our age is the rapid decline of the public library. What was once a crucial and heavily used part of local public provision has become, with some exceptions, a starved, neglected and run-down service.
According to the latest CIPFA statistics for the UK, spending on public libraries dropped again, by 4%, in the year ending March 2018. 127 libraries closed, the numbers of paid staff declined by 4.3% and the number of volunteers rose by 7%. Library visits dropped by 4.2% and loans by 5%.
The main reason for the decline, of course, is ‘austerity’. By ‘austerity’ I mean not an inevitable outcome of the financial crash of 2008, but the planned impoverishing of the public realm ordered by David Cameron and George Osborne. They had other choices at the time, but made a deliberate decision to reduce the role of the state, so ensuring that those most in need of its services (most of us) paid the main price for the crash, rather than the bankers and other members of their own class.
Austerity steams ahead today, as local authorities continue to struggle to balance their books and manage shrinking services with less money. Recent statistics show that those in poorer areas receive less central government grants than those in more affluent parts of the country, and councils’ increasing reliance on council tax accentuates that inequality. Theresa May’s assurance in October 2018 that ‘austerity is over’ is just one of her many fibs.
But there are other explanations for the decline. One is the failure of many local councils and councillors to understand the importance and role of public libraries in their communities. Few, I suspect, are aware of how their local libraries support literacy and reading among children, crucial when the UK has one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy in Europe, or that the well-being of old people may depend on their access to reading, library-based groups and human company. How many know that there are adults who rely on the library to get online (and help using online services) because they have no personal access? How many of them stop to consider that the public library is nowadays the only public, neutral, safe space left for people to come to and meet in? Libraries are crucial to so many aspects of keeping us healthy, informed and alive.
One reason why councils have been able to get away with targeting libraries for cuts is that many of them don’t seem to think that providing a public library service is a statutory obligation, under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. In recent years I’ve had to remind more than one council official of this fact. Or, if they’re aware of their legal duty, they choose to behave as if it can be safely ignored. How can this be?
The answer is that the Public Libraries Act is less than specific about what the local authority’s exact obligations are. As you’d expect, the text of the Act reads like ancient history today – it is, after all, 55 years old. Less excusable is the vagueness of its wording on the legal duty: ‘it shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof’ (clause 7). And that’s all. There’s no definition of what ‘comprehensive’ or ‘efficient’ might be.
This allows councils to get away with practices that they know are unlikely to result in legal challenge. For example, they can hand a branch over to be run by volunteers, knowing that the service will almost inevitably cease to be efficient. Or they can threaten to remove all library services from people who are housebound, as Swansea Council is now doing, secure in the knowledge that the law will not be used to overturn what most reasonable people would regard that as a breach of the ‘comprehensive’ rule.
As far as I’m aware (I’m open to correction) on only a single occasion this century (Wirral Council in 2009) has the Public Libraries Act has been used successfully, in England or Wales, to overturn library closures or plans for them. It’s a toothless, useless Act.
What about Wales? My impression – I’ve not had access to the detailed statistics – is that Wales has suffered less than England from library closures. But there’s no denying that the cumulative effect of many years of Westminster-imposed cuts to funds, staffing and accommodation has been to weaken the overall service in Wales severely. Public library standards are helpful – England lacks them – but they’ve not prevented service erosion (and they’re soft on what they call ‘community managed libraries’). For many years CyMAL, the branch of the Welsh Government responsible for monitoring standards, and for supporting and promoting libraries, archives and museums, did excellent work, especially in funding new buildings. But CyMAL no longer exists (it’s shrunk into what’s now called MALD) and its central funding support has been reduced.
In July 2014 the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee of the National Assembly published a report entitled Public libraries in Wales. It made ten, mainly ‘motherhood and apple pie’, recommendations, and had little or no impact on halting the decline in services. After another four years and more of unceasing ‘austerity’ it reads as a rather complacent document. ‘There was no overall support for replacing the 1964 Act’, it concluded, though it did recommend that ‘the Minister works with partners to develop a contemporary definition of “comprehensive and efficient” library services for local authorities to deliver under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Such a definition should include the provision of internet access which, we believe, should remain free of charge.’ The Welsh Government has done nothing so far to implement this.
So what’s to be done that will a chance of reducing the relentless decline? It seems to me that there’s much to be said for pressing now for a new Public Libraries Act.
I take it that England is, for the time being, beyond hope. There’s not the slightest chance that its current government might consider any libraries legislation. But Wales is different. There’s still a general understanding, including within the Welsh Government, that libraries in some way matter and are worth supporting as part of a wider public service (for which there’s also continuing broad support). What’s needed is a focus for discussion and decision that will help matters, and legislation that will work.
It’s not just a question of adopting legislation with teeth, a law that actually means something. The process of working towards a new Act carries several potential benefits:
- The most obvious advantages of a new Act would be, first, that it would reaffirm the statutory basis of the library service, and second, as the Assembly Committee recommended, that it would define more unambiguously what a satisfactory service would consist of.
- That process of arriving at a definition would in itself entail a lot of hard thought about what a library service is for in the 21st century. A lively debate would be sparked that could include library professionals, politicians, and library users (and non-users).
- In particular, how libraries interact with other agencies (educational, health, social services, tourism and others) would become a live issue. Too often libraries have been shovelled in with other functions as a matter of administrative convenience – as in Cardiff Council’s notorious ‘hubs’ – without real thought or planning about the benefits of cooperation, and to the detriment of the library service.
- Another topic for wide debate is the structure of, and division of responsibility for, library services. For example, in the case of digital services (but not just them) there’s a strong case for a strong Wales-wide organisation, with local authorities responsible for delivering a nationally planned service.
- And finally, the process of working towards a new Act would raise the level of political and public debate in a way that, properly informed by evidence, could only help spread awareness and understanding of the many ways libraries benefit everyone.
If and when ‘austerity’ really does come to an end and public services are once again valued rather than derided by a UK government, it would be a shame if there be no public libraries surviving to be revived. But that is the way things are heading, unless we can all agree on a different, better course. A new Public Libraries Act in Wales could be one step towards a more hopeful future.