Dave Anderson: Public libraries remain vital and we are closing too many

Blaydon Labour MP Dave Anderson says the fate of our public libraries is a microcosm of the choice facing the country in May

Angela Mackenzie, who has helped fight the closure of High Heaton Library
Angela Mackenzie, who has helped fight the closure of High Heaton Library

The folk singer Joni Mitchell put it well - “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’re got till it’s gone.”

I am thinking here of the precious resource of our public libraries, which have suffered through a 40% cut in local government funding over this Parliament.

Over 300 libraries have been closed in the past five years and another 400 are now run by volunteers while 6,000 jobs have been axed. One third of libraries have reduced opening hours and a further third have introduced charges for previously free services, especially internet use.

One factor is lower demand thanks to the internet revolution. It used to be that those of us who couldn’t afford encyclopaedias would visit the library reference room. Nowadays many just fire up their tablets for results in seconds.

But we should not exaggerate the impact of the internet. Public libraries are still highly respected and used.

Recent figures show that 306 million visits are made each year to libraries, and that 70% of 5-15 year-olds have used a library in the past year. Over two thirds of people say that libraries are essential or very important to their community.

An independent report suggests that libraries catch up with modern times by installing wi-fi - one third of all libraries lack this now basic service - as well as coffee facilities and sofas. The report could, however, simply gather dust on the book shelf unless the government commits to funding our libraries and creating a connected network that would then boost their use.

In these circumstances, it is necessary to restate why we need libraries. They can be quiet places for studying. Not every child or indeed adult has the space at home for a desk or can afford a computer. One in five families lack internet access at home. Many cannot afford to buy all the books they need for either leisure or for their studies. Unemployed people can also use libraries to find job information.

Many older people don’t have or find it easy to use personal computers and yet find that more and more services require them to pay or engage online.

Computers in libraries are vital to bridging the digital divide. My sister is a librarian and spends much time acting as an advice worker and IT consultant. She is delighted to help people but if the library goes, then what?

The labour movement has long valued the role of public libraries in allowing working people without private resources to broaden their minds and educate themselves.

Mechanics Institutes nationwide provided poor working people with their first chance to access the world of the written word. Many miners’ welfares also have reading rooms. The banner of the Murton Miners is emblazoned with the immortal words, Knowledge is Power.

Local libraries are not only vital repositories of knowledge, but are also central to our communities and where social events for young and old can take place.

The great philanthropist and founder of many libraries, Andrew Carnegie rightly commented that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” But the spring of knowledge and community is shrivelling.

The fate of our public libraries is a microcosm of the choice facing the country in May. The Conservatives, who are often bad at conserving the community assets that make us culturally rich, always seem to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Labour has accepted the need to tackle the deficit but in a way that doesn’t bring the house down.

The Conservatives have veered to the right in not only seeking to eliminate the deficit but also to slash the public sector for ideological reasons and giving tax cuts to wealthier people.

The Tories often bang on about Victorian values and seem happy to take the country back to those times. You just have to wonder if they are happy to do so to restore what they see as the natural order of things.

Dave Anderson is the Labour MP for Blaydon.

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