Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed

Protesters and police clash outside Liverpool Town Hall (Liverpool Echo)

Protesters and police clash outside Liverpool Town Hall (Liverpool Echo)

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.

Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute building on Mount Street

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.

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20 thoughts on “Public libraries: 150 years of advance is being destroyed

  1. No – I think you made the case very well. I came across a piece from a couple of years ago in the New Statesman that makes your point, too. In ‘Time for a quiet rebellion over library closures’, Robin Ince wrote about what happened when the local council threatened to close the library in Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes to comply with government budget cuts: residents got out their library cards and borrowed every single book on the shelves – some 16,000 in total. Like you, he argued that we must ‘Use it or lose it’. http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2011/01/library-libraries-books

  2. Hhmm. It’s bad, of course. But really, how bad? There’s an awful lot of middle-class sentimentality and condescension, projected downwards, flowing through this debate. The facts.are inconvenient. People no longer use libraries, neither as they once did, nor absolutely. Where they do, it’s to borrow, in the main, the latest pulp fiction. Visitors numbers have been declining for 40 years; the volume of book issues (ie books borrowed) has declined even more steeply. It’s been steepest in working-class areas. Books, relative to average income, are cheaper than at any time in history. And libraries have diversified into DVDs etc – to no avail. The decline continues, closures or not

    • Certainly ways of reading are changing with technology, but there are still a hell of a lot of books borrowed from public libraries – a great many by kids. In an analysis of the data for 2010, John Dugdale wrote in The Guardian: ‘Who borrows books from libraries? Millions of people, according to the latest book lending data from the Public Lending Right, which manages payments to authors.’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/feb/18/libraries-book-lending-borrowed-data)

      The importance of libraries for young readers is underscored by the fact that ‘Seven British children’s writers are in the Top 10 most borrowed authors in UK libraries’ while ‘almost 80% of 5-10 year olds now use our public libraries’. Quite apart from the issue of class and disposable income with which to buy books, these facts seem to me really important.

      The Telegraph also reports that library use has been increasing:

      ‘ A report from The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) revealed that 310.8 million books were borrowed from libraries across the country in 2008/09. The figure represents a 1 per cent increase compared with the previous 12-month period, the first rise in book borrowing in 10 years. The figures also showed that the number of children’s books borrowed from libraries across the UK increased 5 per cent last year, with 95.4 million children’s books being taken out compared to the 90.6 million in the previous 12-month period. The statistics also show the number of visits to library websites increased by 49 per cent to 113.5 million.’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7715689/Children-behind-rise-in-borrowing-of-library-books.html)

      The latest statistics (http://readingagency.org.uk/news/library-facts004/) show that:

      ‘38% of adults aged 65-74 use the library
      The proportion of adults using the library from the social rented sector has increased from 37% to 42%.
      Adults who are not working have higher rates of library attendance (42%) than those who are working 36%.
      People in the upper socio-economic groups (41%) are more likely than those in the lower socio-economic groups (36%) to use the library, although library use by people in lower socio-economic groups is increasing’

      So – a valuable service for children, the poor, the unemployed and the elderly. And I just think it’s not sentimental to imagine that one kid off a ravaged and depressed estate who wanders into the local library, sits down, opens a book and sets out on a journey to …. where?

  3. I suppose the question posed then is do we bow to the lowest common denominator which is a dollar sign or do we hold out for cultural integrity? I used to do a lot of family research, you could walk into the records office and do your own searching. You had to travel that was all. Now it’s digitalised and you need a computer to access records – so it’s lucre before you even start, and someone somewhere is getting pretty rich I guess. I’m sure there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in all these charges unless you are poor, and then you are also culturally disenfranchised. This idea that computers are the new portals to knowledge is a myth – many Internet sites and increasingly so, charge for access to knowledge + the Internet is notoriously unreliable for bugs and glitches, it is just no substitute for sitting quietly in a library and seriously reading something without interruption. In losing our libraries we are losing an entire way of life – we are losing a large chunk of our culture, idealism, and social history I feel.

    • Dave and Kris – I just found this, too: a new report from the Carnegie Trust (summarised here: http://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?guid=f368e6c5-122f-4cf7-909e-9bac6978ea78) which shows that:

      – around three quarters (74%) of those surveyed in England felt that libraries were ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ for communities,
      – half of those surveyed had used a public library in the previous 12 months.
      – Library use by 15-24 year olds (55%) was higher than the average over all age groups (50%)
      – there was a strong and statistically significant relationship between library use and being a prolific reader (reading at least one book every 6 weeks)

      Dave was right about this, though: ‘In relation to social class it appears that senior
      managers and professionals (71%) were more likely to have visited a library that those in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations (42%).’ But isn’t that bound to be the case when literacy and love of reading is not distributed evenly across the population?
      With far fewer libraries wouldn’t the situation be far, far worse?

      • The magic of opening a book is going to become something alien to future generations if we lose our libraries I fear. The last I heard literacy levels were actually falling after the government push to ‘raise standards’ in schools – enforced Literacy as opposed to reading for pleasure, may have seen to it that youngsters are starting to view literacy as something basically punitive. The lesson in that one is to keep politicans out of education, keep them out of sport and importantly keep them out of health care wherever possible.

  4. This is so depressing, closing libraries is always the soft option. It is a dilemma if cuts do have to be made though – the trouble is no public services should be cut. I am beginning to wonder what the answer is apart from revolution and redirection of wealth!

    • The coalition have made it clear that bankers’ bonuses must be protected before books. You can cook them but not look at them. “Stop being simplistic,” comes the comment. Well, it seems quite simple to me. No-one’s denying that libraries need to adapt – but they have and, as Gerry points out, they are well used. We are certainly not going to change things while recent prime ministers go straight on to the bankers’ payroll.

  5. I’ve been digging around what local evidence there is for library use these days. Generally, numbers for book borrowing are DOWN, but more resilient in wealthier suburban areas. However, libraries like to see themselves these days (correctly, in my view) as information resource centres. Hence user footfall is slightly UP in places, being sustained by (free) access to computers. Some will use their private laptops via the library WiFi. But many more will go online via the library PCs.

    Now one Government policy change is driving library usage UP. Benefit claimants, including job-seekers, are now required to register online – and only online. Library computers are increasingly being used for this..

  6. “Benefit claimants, including job-seekers, are now required to register online – and only online.” OMG – if they are closing the libraries, what happens if you don’t own or can’t afford a computer or the Internet connection, what then? Do the people who bring in these ideas actually think? A lot of people may have lost the capacity for creative thought due to the narrow confines of the educational curriculum – there may be a lot of bright people out there whose imaginative lives are inert. So when these stark initiatives come out of central government the mindset responsible for them might be unable to comprehend their consequencies, because the imaginative faculty – and it follows, the ability to emphasise and feel compassion – has never been fully developed. At this juncture you are shaping human beings for society who may be in danger of not really understanding what it is to be fully human, and that is a precarious predicament for everyone.

  7. An excellent potted history of the evolution of public libraries in the UK (and in Liverpool in particular). The problem is that these familiar arguments appear to cut no ice with the Conservatives in Westminster corridors of power. Even if we could convince these people that knowledge is not, after all, power, they still would not let us keep our public libraries, but they’ll keep the two they have to themselves in the Houses of Parliament, publicly funded of course. It is not true that people do not use libraries in these times; the internet is no substitute for human contact. The secret to a successful public library service is professional librarians making selection decisions based upon their day to day knowledge of their local communities. This method of working has been undermined by what the managers call “outsourcing”, so that private companies do the selection and even the cataloguing etc. of any incoming stock, if you have a decent budget for such a thing as new stock in the first place. A society that does not wish to fund the traditional, and much more sensible way of doing things in public libraries is a very sick society heading in a direction that it will be hard to describe without falling into hyperbole.

  8. Please: let the destruction of libraries be the hallmark of the Conservative Party from this day onwards, so that all may know them for what they really are. Thanks for the article Gerry.

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