Arts Opinion

Why Are Public Libraries Closing?

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October 9-14 is Libraries’ Week, “the annual showcase of all the creative, innovative and diverse activities that UK libraries have to offer.”

In a city like London where the wealth gap between the top and bottom of society continues to widen inexorably, and where public space appears to be at a premium, it’s becoming harder for people with a minimal income at their disposal to access modes of information and entertainment outside of the home.

With an increase in the level of in-work poverty over the last decade due largely to the normalising culture of zero-hours contracts and part-time work, access to the paid cultural aspects of a city like London is fast becoming the domain of the few as opposed to the right of the many.

Highly-inflated costs during a sustained period in which wages have stagnated, not only means that more people are being priced out of corporate-controlled spaces, but they are also denied the socialised interaction that is analogous to them.

‘Infotainment’ & info-advertising

But this is not the whole story. It’s perhaps tempting to believe that the corporate world of learning is diverse and the flow of information wide-ranging. But this is an illusion. Entertainment and TV news are increasingly ideological and uniform in nature, the purpose of which is to satisfy the financial demands of advertisers.

What the corporate world of information and entertainment is purported to be a reality, often merges seamlessly into overt propagandised fiction. John Pilger describes a media age as opposed to an information age where lines are deliberately blurred, with diversity and creativity restricted: “the available information is repetitive, safe and limited by invisible boundaries.”

This is where public libraries, as alternative spaces, come into their own. Many people regard libraries as the most valued and trusted resources at the heart of communities because they foster not only learning but social, cultural and economic well-being.

Public libraries are one of the few spaces where people can enter a world devoid of the dominant ‘infotainment’ and ‘info-advertising’ forms of corporate culture. But in addition to offering an alternative to the increasingly atomising space of the home, libraries also provide people with the opportunity to temporarily escape from a ‘brainwashing’ narrative that portrays them as “a corrupting, anti-social group that exist outside of society.” Think of shows like Jeremy Kyle and Benefits Street.

More than just books

In that sense, public libraries are more than just books. Not only do they provide a space for people to escape, they are also beneficial in terms of the health and well-being of society. They help to kindle children’s literacy and encourage them to read during term-time and holidays.

Libraries are used by parents and nurseries. They offer access to the internet to those that don’t have access. They provide space for people to read and study in peace that is not always possible in their homes. They are places to host community events, training and education.

They provide respite for the mentally ill and a space for people with physical disabilities who perhaps feel isolated in the home, as well as offering a temporary sanctuary to the homeless. They are, in other words, the embodiment of community spirit. And, of course, they are free. Indeed, there are many reasons for arguing that the library is the most important place in town.

So the question is, why is the government seemingly intent on getting rid of them?

Freedom of Information (FOI) figures show that since 2010, 575 council-run public libraries have either been closed, transferred to community groups or outsourced. This is a trend that is set to continue into 2018 as a further 111 are due to be closed within a year.

The main reason for this asset-stripping of a public utility is ideological. Public libraries represent notions of community and collective values. Many sit on prime value land. But the shift in government attitudes goes deeper than that. In part, it’s also that libraries represent the very antithesis of the fast-paced rhythm of modern life.

The process of reading books is a slow-burning aesthetic pleasure that cannot be reduced to a soundbite phrase or snappy commercial. Furthermore, books are tangible things, not abstractions that exist in ‘clouds’ and can be taken away for free, a system paid for through taxation based on the concept of reciprocity. These are the kinds of values the Tories detest.

The ‘cowardly new world’ of Barnet

The Tory-controlled London Borough of Barnet appears to be the model testing ground for a future country-wide closure of libraries as part of a broader government programme of austerity-driven measures. Cuts to library services in Barnet are severe and their impacts will come down hardest on children.

A 2016 study by brain specialist and child development expert, Dr Aric Sigman is said to reveal concerns about the permanent damage to health, development and achievement the prolonged and repeated reading from screens, as an alternative to reading books, has on children.

Sigman’s findings are consistent with Barnet’s own ‘risk assessment’. But despite this, the council urges young people to adopt an even more sedentary lifestyle and spend up to four-times the safe limit staring at computer screens.

Barnet’s own documents show that children aged 10-15 account for 12% of library use and they do so independently after school. Massive closures will almost certainly impact negatively on their levels of literacy and, as a result of the increase in the lack of study space, will likely damage older children’s exam pass-rate potential.

Protester Ralph Vincent summed up the bewilderment and fury of local children when he said:

“Dystopia should be confined to works of fiction rather than the very real actions of our local government. We simply want the proper educational and cultural access that is our right. When the council is happy to spend more to lock us out of our libraries than to simply let us have a usable service that promotes learning and happiness, we are entering very dark and scary times indeed. I guess we could call it “A Cowardly New World.”

Slash and burn

To mark the 20th celebration of World Book Day, schoolchildren gathered locally to denounce the council’s plan to shut down two-thirds of Barnet’s libraries. Despite several consultations and pending legal action, the council approved 12 separate planning applications to spend more than £14m in an attempt to save less than £2.3m (a massive 2177.5% increase in cost per user resulting from these drastic cuts). This highlights that the decision to cut services is ideological rather than economically pragmatic.

Barnet’s ‘Risk Mitigation’ and ‘Equal Opportunities Assessment’ states that of the 64%  of disabled people who visit a library on a weekly basis who can no longer physically enter them, should instead stay at home and use the mobile service. Last year the mobile service in Barnet catered to barely 3,000 or 1.6% of users.

The decision by the council to go ahead with these drastic cuts to services clearly contravenes the 1964 Museums and Public Libraries Act which was introduced in order to ensure councils didn’t renege on their duty to encourage the use of library services. The Act legally requires local authorities to provide comprehensive and efficient library services.

The campaigning group Save Barnet Libraries have called upon the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, to intervene but this has been disregarded. One disgruntled local resident, who wished to remain anonymous, remarked on the government’s failure to adhere to its responsibilities:

“Has the disregard for the Libraries and Museums Act been a willful collusion with the ‘fake news’ agenda to dismantle cheap and easy access to legitimate information for all? Or, like so much pride before the fall, are we seeing a spirit of complacency that has led us to the shuttering of refuges of truth?  Will the disregard for the Libraries and Museums Act of 1964 prove as disastrous for democracy and literacy as the arrogant repealing of the Glass-Steighel Act to separate Wall Street from Main Street was for financial stability?”

Barnet council’s slashing of libraries is a policy that has also been adopted by Wirral council. It looks set to be repeated throughout the country. Author Michael Rosen wrote of the importance of maintaining a comprehensive library service and implored Wirral council and, by extension all councils, not to undermine this endeavour:

“It is vital for the lives of us all that [libraries] are supported, expanded, enriched and diversified. If we let them close, we are in effect consigning huge sections of the population to a world either without books, or a world with only the books that the giant corporations want us to read. This is an appalling prospect and I urge the councillors of the Wirral to fight every attempt to destroy your local library service.”

But more than that, on the basis of protecting our children’s health, well-being and education attainment levels, Tory plans to cut library services throughout the rest of the country must be resisted at every turn. Organisations like the NHS, and local public services like libraries, are too important to lose.

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