I loved Borders bookstore. Every Sunday I would gather up a collection of political magazines, buy a coffee, sit and read. I did not buy these books and magazines; I read them in the store. The mystery of why Borders went bankrupt is solved. Borders provided a warm, relaxing and inviting place to read for people like me. It did not provide profit for its owners. This is how most Britons would like their local library service to operate but how can councils fund this?
I treated Borders as a library. It assumed the role of a library for many middle class people. We find the idea of a library attractive. We want an extensive collection of books (though preferably 'free'), available on demand, provided by helpful and informed staff, housed in some modern inviting civic building. Some libraries work like this but many do not.
The modern English library is often very different to that of our dreams. Real libraries are often cold, dark, dirty and un-inviting. The customer base for libraries mostly consists of school children who are required to go, vagrants who visit to keep warm and older residents who want to socialise on the cheap. Static libraries open when workers start work and close before they leave work. Mobile library services are becoming rarer. Libraries hours of opening often suit staff more than potential library users.They are an institution looking for a role.
Many local libraries have become the lost and found cupboard of local government, performing a seemingly unrelated series of random tasks. Some are glorified internet cafes; others are a publically subsidised version of Blockbuster video. Some have been mothballed, integrated with other services to achieve efficiencies; you visit the library and find it is doubling as a community hall, job centre or children’s play area as well.
You can understand how we got here and some of these developments have merit. The public may prefer to search Google than to read Graham Greene. DVD and CD rental provides income to subsidise the libraries activities. Libraries are a logical place for community organisation; they are a communal space in the heart of every town. Integrating the library with welfare benefit applications may encourage poorer people to use the libraries when few currently do. The reasons for our current predicament are understandable, but this policy of drift cannot endure.
Libraries should be great independent institutions. To do this they need a coherent vision of their audience and purpose. If the purpose of a library is to grant everyone free access to knowledge than this could be done through e libraries because no local physically existent library can replicate the range of books available online. If libraries are a valued cultural space (I think they are) they need to become the kind of space where people of all social classes would enjoy spending time. This costs money, so who will pay?
The public are highly sceptical about introducing user fees. In Government, Labour indulged this scepticism. They proposed a statutory ban on libraries charging for ebooks and a compulsory duty for public libraries to provide free internet access. In the current Parliament, a Labour MP has proposed expanding the statutory duty to provide a library service to include the provision of cultural services. These proposals are fiscally irresponsible but popular. They are fitting for a Labour party whose chief secretary to the treasury, Liam Byrne, wrote to his successor David Laws, saying "there is no money left" and wishing Mr Laws "good luck."A deficit for dummies guide should become required reading for Labour party representatives because many of them still don’t get it.
Legislating that councils have to provide a service for free does not magic the funds to make it happen. There is no such thing as a ‘free’ service. Librarians need to be paid. Library books need to be stored, catalogued and arranged. This has to be funded by someone. Either local taxpayers, private donors or those who use the service will need to meet these costs. If Labour want to propose raising taxes to pay for citizens to have free internet access etc in public libraries they should be honest and say that. I do not want to raise taxes. In future blogs I will explore how councils can finance library provision and what form that provision should take.
Without appropriate funding libraries will close or they will reduce their opening times to save on staff costs. New library books will not be purchased so users will be forced to make do with fewer books and older collections. Library buildings will fall into disrepair, cutting back on cleaning and maintenance. Around 250 of the 4,500 public libraries in the UK are earmarked for closure in the current public spending cuts and this follows a 6 per cent decline in the number of libraries between 1997 and 2010. It would be sad if the 'free' access we so cherish condemned library services to decline.
Labour MP Margaret Hodge (former Minister with responsibility for public libraries) believed that libraries could raise revenue by selling books and putting coffee houses in them. These moves have some merit. The latter option was recommended by Starbucks UK Managing Director Darcy Wilson-Rymer in DCLG’s consultation on this subject, Empower, Inform, Enrich. What is certain is that coffee shops in libraries are no comprehensive solution to our woes. This was the model for Borders, and Borders went bankrupt.