Saturday February 6th 2016 is National Libraries Day in the UK. Literary luminaries, from Joanna Trollope, Ali Smith and Neil Gaiman, to former poet laureate Andrew Motion, have lined up to support it. Libraries across the country are holding a week of special activities. NLD is both a celebration and an urgent necessity.
The UK has over 4,100 public libraries and 950 academic libraries, including the British Library, one of the largest in the world. Library cuts and closures are inspiring as much emotion and campaigning zeal in this country as cuts to our National Health Service – both are essential to our well-being. 450 libraries have closed in 5 years and 1000’s of skilled employees have lost jobs as a result of radical government spending cuts. Book stocks are being depleted and opening hours reduced.
Neil Gaiman proclaimed that libraries are “the thin red line between civilization and barbarism”. Joanna Trollope asked how we “dare to close one single public library”? And for Andrew Motion, “A healthy library service means a healthy society.” Powerful people but powerless so far in preventing this national scandal.
The campaign is led by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and over 10,000 people have signed the petition requesting the culture secretary, John Whittingdale to act to protect the our “statutory rights to a quality public library service”. There have been demonstrations and rallies. The novelist Ali Smith told The Guardian Newspaper that the closures could actually be illegal: “The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act affirmed the Public Libraries Act of 1850 and neither act has been rescinded – the closures are against the law… Democracy of reading, democracy of space: that’s our library tradition, it was incredibly hard won for us by the generations before us, and we should be protecting it, not just for ourselves but in the name of every generation after us.”
Personally I can’t think of anything negative about libraries, except that they cost money and need staff to operate them! Number one is their role in promoting reading and literacy. The UK has amongst the lowest literacy levels in the developed world, according to a recent OECD survey. Libraries are also community centres and provide multi-purpose spaces to meet, read books and newspapers; to attend readings and performances and to access archives. Their architecture is some of the most innovative and beautiful in the country – look at the new Birmingham Library, a flagship multi-million pound building (although its operations are already a victim of the cuts). Libraries are today at the forefront of digital learning in the UK, with the majority providing free Internet access and digital devices. In 2015 in the UK a record number of readers (up 24 % from 2014) borrowed nearly 170 million ebooks, with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins top of the loan list. Growth in audiobook lending was even higher.
There are several systems in the UK providing these digital services (secure management, digital rights management and download fulfillment services) to libraries, publishers, schools, universities and retailers, but the US digital distributor OverDrive is the most popular. There are hiccups with all these models – such as format compatibility, the cost of licenses for the libraries, certain practical and legal questions, the lack of quality ebook fiction and of backlists – but libraries are, and always were, adaptable and in the vanguard of social development.
Check out some of OverDrive’s statistics for the UK for last year:
• Ebook circulation was 125 million (19-percent growth over 2014)
• Digital audiobook circulation was 43 million (36-percent growth over 2014)
• Streaming video circulation was up 83 percent over 2014
• 33 library systems circulated 1 million or more digital books in 2015
• Lending of digital magazines and newspapers grew significantly in 2015 (introduced in late 2014)
• Reader visits to OverDrive-powered library and school websites was 750 million (up 14 percent from 2014).
So the upshot is that Britain is reading voraciously – whether physical or electronic books – and libraries play a big part. But after severe government cuts to local authority budgets, targeting libraries has become the soft option. Local councils have until the end of this month to finalize their budgets. Take Bradford Council in the north of England. After April 2017 it reckons it must reduce its spending on its 32 libraries by £200,000. Most of Bradford’s libraries will become ‘community-managed’ and some will close if volunteers are not found to run them. If it weren’t for volunteers this country would simply not function. My own mother is an exemplary and typical volunteer in Cornwall, the poorest county in England: she helps run wildife groups, our local beach, school, council, church and ofcourse our library.
I have some sympathy for the DCMS, the government Department for Culture, Media and Sport responsible, and for the minister Ed Vaizey, an indefatigable and likeable culture-vulture, and for his boss John Whittingdale. But as a library user, a tax payer and a human being, I’m asking them to stop the cuts and save our libraries. I learned to read thanks to our local library – in my home town of Newquay in Cornwall. Although my ‘local library’ today happens to be the British Library in London, it is one of my favourite places in the world. Or to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, “a triumph of civilization”.