IS there another public building which evokes as much passion as a library? We don’t usually protest about the closure of a tax office or a law court. Yet when our library in Barnsley was demolished a few years ago, people wept openly and joined hands to try to prevent the wrecking ball smashing through the walls.
I understood their pain. However, when it comes to libraries, there is a pull which goes beyond the sentimental. That’s why the news that cash-strapped councils cut spending on public libraries by £25m a year comes as yet another body blow to this vital public service.
New analysis by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) reveals that total expenditure on libraries fell from £944m in 2014/15 to £919m over the last year.
To put it bluntly, England, Scotland and Wales has lost almost 100 libraries in 12 months – the total number dropped from 3,917 to 3,850 – and the total number of visits fell from 265 million to 250 million.
Whoever makes the ultimate decisions about funding and investment is seriously missing a trick. Councils said they are making “the very best” of the resources available, but must cope with a squeeze in funding from Westminster.
Ian Stephens, chairman of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board, points out that councils have suffered a 40 per cent reduction in core Government funding over the last Parliament, and libraries have been in the frontline of cuts. I can only assume that those with control over the purse strings have failed to realise just how much libraries have innovated and adapted to offer the public what they need.
That said, I am old enough to remember the old public reading rooms in Barnsley, approached via a wrought iron staircase above the Civic Hall. As a very small child, I would visit with my mother, who inspired my love of reading from before I could walk.
With her bun and glasses on the end of her nose, the librarian could have come straight out of Central Casting. It was a place where ancient desk lamps cast mysterious shadows, where tomes on trade unionism loomed down on Georgette Heyer. When I think of it now, its original purpose is clear. This library, opened in the early 20th century, was where minds were expanded through books, newspapers and a (slightly dusty) window on the world.
Yet these days libraries are more than a place to borrow books and read papers – they are a vital public resource. For those without access to reliable internet, or even a laptop to call their own, the library is the first-choice destination. How can funding for this vital resource be justifiably cut when every Government agency and public service is forcing us to do more and more of our business and transactions online?
For countless new arrivals to our towns and cities too, the library becomes a lifeline. It’s the place where information can be sought, a meeting spot, and a welcoming haven from the harshness of life in 21st century Britain.
For many people, too, it’s the place to go when you want to find out more about yourself and your heritage. Millions of people worldwide are tracing their family trees. When the internet has exhausted its resources, it’s to the library they turn.
I’ve edited several books on local history and have spent hours doing research in the Archives and Local Studies department. It was hard not to be distracted by the visitors who would turn up, often from America or Australia, hunting out information about their Yorkshire roots.
The endlessly patient archivists would instruct them in the operation of the microfiche machine and order up records and generally help individuals to piece together the jagged jigsaws of their lives. You simply cannot put a price on the satisfaction that this would bring to people.
And let’s not forget the actual books. If you’re anything like me, you will honour your local library as a place where adventures can begin.
It was only a year or so before those old reading rooms were replaced by that now-demolished Central Library on Shambles Street. The concrete Brutalist exterior of this imposing building opened up to a cornucopia of literature, learning, inspiration and sophistication. There was even a café in the basement which sold coffee that smelt of coffee, quite a rarity in 1970s Barnsley.
The children’s library was also under the ground. On a rainy day after school, you could look up to the people passing by and turn instead to a world populated by dinosaurs and spaceships and imagine yourself to be anywhere else you liked.
It’s a long story itself, but this library was replaced by an excellent new sixth form college. The howls of indignation subsided, the library has a temporary home and a brand-new replacement will be built as part of Barnsley’s town centre improvements. In my town at least, the library will continue to be cherished. I just wish I could say the same for the rest of the country.