Away in London for a few days, we returned to Liverpool to the news that the City Council has voted to close half the city’s libraries. Liverpool has 19 libraries at present but the council aims to save around £1 million (from April 2014) by closing ten. The school uniform grant is going too – and there are plans to sell off some of the council nurseries.
It’s a Labour council, but no-one believes these are Labour cuts. With 80% of the council’s funding coming from central government and only 11% from council tax, it’s the Tory-led coalition at Westminster that is depriving Liverpudlians (an those who live in other northern towns and cities) of their hard-won public services. Mayor Joe Anderson warned that more cuts were to come. There’s a jaw-dropping table in the booklet ‘Budget News’ that’s just come through every letter box in the city:
Savings needed year by year
- 2011-12: £91.4 million (delivered)
- 2012-13: £50 million (on target)
- 2013-14: £32 million
- 2014-15: £46 million
- 2015-16: £35 million
- 2016-17: £36 million
Deputy Mayor Paul Brant said after the Council meeting: ‘We have, with a heavy heart, to balance the books. We’re elected to do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt by the government and we have done that.’ He said the decision to scrap the school uniform grant was ‘heart-breaking’ but the council was ‘just unable to continue to afford it any longer’.
The broadcaster Joan Bakewell has described the planned library closures in areas like Liverpool and Newcastle as a ‘cultural catastrophe’ and called on Culture secretary Maria Miller to prevent them:
Given the disproportionately heavy cuts to local authority funding in the north of England, when will the secretary of state use her considerable reserve powers to stop this cultural catastrophe?
Our working class forebears in London, Birmingham and towns across the north of England struggled throughout the years of the industrial revolution for the right to free education and access to subscription-free public libraries. Even before the first public libraries were established, working class organisations set up a range of facilities designed to support mass education. This month will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson’s pioneering history of working class self-activity during the period 1780 to 1832. In describing how working class groups established study groups and libraries, Thompson observed that ‘the working class made itself as much as it was made’ through organisations like the Corresponding Societies in the 1790s to the Mechanics’ Institutes of the 1830s. In one example, he notes an ambitious venture – the opening of a Temple of Reason in 1796, at Nichol’s Sale Room in Whitecross Street, London. Its members furnished it and built up a library.
Knowledge was power, so artisans and workers who could not afford subscription libraries created Mechanics’ Institutes that incorporated collections of books, newspapers and journals. The first library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans’ Library, formed in 1823.
The Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1832, dedicated to providing educational opportunities for working men, mainly through evening classes. Lectures covered topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Luminaries like Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered talks and readings. Eventually the building on Mount Street became home to Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, attended by Paul McCartney.
Some Mechanics’ Institutes eventually became public libraries or were given to local public libraries after the Public Libraries Act 1850 was passed. They were the beginning of the idea of a free public library service.
The Public Libraries Act 1850 was the first to give local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. One of the MPs who promoted the bill in Parliament was William Ewart, who had been born in Liverpool in 1798. In the 1840s, Ewart, by then MP for Dumfries, turned his attention to working class education, and joined forces with the MP for Salford, Joseph Brotherton, and the Chartist, Edward Edwards, to draft a Public Libraries Act. Ewart faced considerable hostility from the Conservatives in the Commons who objected that the rate-paying middle and upper classes would be paying for a service that would be mainly used by the working class.
Whereas William Ewart wanted all boroughs to have the power to finance public libraries, the legislation only applied to those boroughs with populations of over 10,000 where the consent of two-thirds of local ratepayers had been obtained in a referendum. A rate of no more than a halfpenny in the pound could be levied, and the money raised could not be used to buy books – only for accommodation. Nevertheless, the Act was the first legislative step in the creation of universal free access to information and literature, and was indicative of the moral, social and educative concerns of the time. The legacy of the Act can be followed through subsequent legislation that built on and expanded the powers granted in 1850 and the public libraries that exist in the United Kingdom today can trace their origins back to this Act.
Working class access to free public libraries received a major boost at the start of the 20th century through the grants to local councils (including Liverpool) made by Andrew Carnegie. When Andrew Carnegie died in 1919, more than half the local authorities in Great Britain had received grants and over 380 public library buildings in the UK as a whole were associated with his name.
A couple of years ago, when the attack on public libraries was just beginning, author Zadie Smith spoke in defence of her local library and public libraries in general:
I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives. … It always has been and always will be very difficult to explain to people who have money what it means not to have money. ‘If education matters to you,’ they ask, ‘and if libraries matter to you, then why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if they matter so much?’ They’re the kind of people who believe that value can only be measured in money. … Like many people without any money, we relied on our public services – not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities.
The Conservative response to Zadie Smith’s speech came from Shaun Bailey who at the time was ‘ambassador for the ‘big society’ project'; he mendaciously retorted that, ‘it isn’t the government that decide if your library stays open or not, it’s actually your local authority … that’s why this Big Society thing is important, because you are close to those people for an electoral point of view and have more sway over them’. Tell that to councils in the north like Liverpool or Newcastle doing their best to protect local services while the money from central government is slashed.
A glorious achievement of working class self-advancement is steadily being dismantled. By the very same people who resisted its development in the first place: the rich elite of bankers’ friends and the public school-educated that now governs.
Carl Sagan in Cosmos:
The health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.
- Public Library Trends: a paper by Nick Moore (2003)
- Protestors and police clash outside Town Hall as Liverpool Council rubber stamps cuts: Liverpool Echo
- Defend every library: local blogger Ronnie Hughes, A Sense of Place
- The wonderfulness of public libraries: another post from local blogger Ronnie Hughes, A Sense of Place
- Jeanette Winterson …. the trouble with books: post on this blog with more about Liverpool’s Carnegie libraries