When I was small, every week my grandmother would take me with her into town. We would go to the greengrocer’s and the butcher’s, the baker’s for an iced bun and maybe the Post Office. Then we’d go to the library.
The library was a magical place. It may have only been a couple of squat brown boxes with strip lights and rough carpet tiles, but what it looked like didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was full of books; and inside every book, a new story. What knee-high me didn’t grasp at the time was that what made all those books, all those stories, accessible to me was the fact that the library service was totally and without exception free.
A place you can go to borrow books, completely free of charge? It’s a simple idea, and it seems totally at odds with western capitalism.
We in the UK pay tax based on our earnings, and that tax is used to fund facilities for the free use of all of us. The National Health Service is one example; roads are another; and libraries are yet another. Yet the idea that people’s ability to self-educate shouldn’t be restricted by their level of wealth is not only a socialist one, but essential for fair capitalism – if someone raised in poverty is unable to educate themselves to the level of someone raised in wealth, the former person cannot be expected to compete fairly with the latter in the free market.
So if the premise behind the establishment of libraries is amicable to socialists and capitalists alike, why has funding for UK libraries so steadily declined since the beginning of the current government’s tenure?
In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron (and leader of the Conservative party) unveiled his vision of the ‘Big Society’. In the Big Society, power over local services – like libraries – is removed from government and given to the people whom the services serve. In practice, this means removing taxpayer funding from these services, leaving them to the care of charities and cooperatives. The idea of the Big Society is an element in the Coalition government’s larger programme of austerity, its response to the UK’s national debt and the government’s budget deficit.
Now, the way to decrease a deficit in government spending is twofold: by either decreasing the output or increasing the input. In other words, by decreasing government spending, or increasing tax. The Coalition government’s approach has been heavily weighted on the side of cutting spending.
It’s estimated that between the years 2010-11 and 2012-13, net expenditure in the public library service has shrunk by over £103 million. Between March 2010 and 2012, we have lost almost 350 library service points (that’s static and mobile libraries). Since April 2013, a further 280 library service points are under threat of closure, have already been closed, or have left council control. At the surviving libraries, a third have introduced charges for services that were previously free, and over a third have decreased their opening hours.¹
Not only does cutting funding to public services arguably have a negative impact on the economy in the short term – the number of volunteers in the library service has been increasing year on year, replacing paid staff, and thereby eliminating jobs – but also on the poorest sections of society, who use libraries out of need rather than choice. If a public library is your only access to the internet or to physical books, your local library being closed five days out of seven – or even closed entirely – has a real effect on your life. This effect is amplified for the disabled, elderly, or others who have a reduced capacity for travel to other, further libraries.
Restricting access to libraries also has an impact on authors – in the UK, authors receive a fee from the government² when their books are borrowed from a public library. When less people borrow books, authors make less money from their work.
The requirement for local councils to maintain a quality library service was made law in 1964, in the Public Libraries and Museums Act. The Act requires all councils to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service, lending books and printed materials free of charge, to anyone who wants to make use of it.³ Councils who throttle funds to libraries, stunting their services and forcing their closures, are arguably failing in their statutory duty to the people they’re supposed to represent.
The facilities at a public library give people without means the chance to better their circumstances. They instil a love for learning in children for whom it might otherwise never have taken root. They allow the underprivileged of the country to take part in the national culture. They give solace and delight. Libraries stimulate the economy in both the short and long term, by creating jobs and by creating a better educated, happier populace.
Libraries, I say, are an objective good for society.
Only a government populated by public school-educated, millionaire career politicians with one foot in Westminster and the other in the City could possibly continue, in the face of this self-evident truth, hell-bent down the path to destroying them.