Final chapter looms for local libraries as councils try to balance their books

HOUSED in a 19th century stone building, Shadwell Library is one of the most imposing village libraries you are likely to come across.

The black paint might be peeling on its solid oak front door and the weather-beaten stonework may have seen better days, but on a bleak mid-winter's day like this it is a welcome refuge. The library, a Grade II listed building, is situated in the heart of Shadwell, a quiet, unassuming village six miles north of Leeds, whose main claim to fame is the fact it was mentioned in the Domesday book.

As well as a library, Shadwell has two churches, a pub, social club, post office, village hall, recreational centre and a primary school. Although how much longer it will have its library – one of 20 earmarked for closure by Leeds Council – remains to be seen.

The proposals, announced in October, are part of a major shake up with services being switched to the remaining 33 libraries, which, council bosses argue, will give the city a better service. A council report showed that of the four million annual visits made to the city's libraries, 2.8 million were made to just 13 libraries. It says small libraries open less than 18 hours a week, are poorly used and it means books valued at 1m and 128,000 worth of computers are locked away for most of the week.

With local authorities facing huge budget cuts scores of local libraries all over the country are now living on borrowed time. In November, North Yorkshire County Council said that as many as 23 of its 42 libraries could be lost as council bosses face tough decisions over which services they can and can't keep.

All of which makes grim reading, especially if your library is one of those on the hit list. However, communities whose libraries are faced with closure aren't taking it lying down. In the village of Methley, south of Leeds, residents have launched a campaign to keep their library open and sent a petition to their local councillor.

In Shadwell, too, a campaign group, the Friends of Shadwell Library, has been formed and flyers sent out to locals encouraging them to write to the Leeds Council leader urging him to re-think the plans.

Barbara Garden, a former Leeds councillor, says it's not the first time the library has been threatened with closure. "We saved the library 12 years ago. It was going to be closed so we arranged a meeting and it was the biggest the village had ever seen, everyone wanted the library to stay open." On that occasion people power won the day, but this time round it might not be enough.

However, Mrs Garden, who lives in Shadwell, believes closing the library would be a mistake. "It's very popular, it has history and everyone uses it. We don't have a bus route to any other library except for the city centre and if you do go there it's a long walk to the library. So this is the only place where people here can go and borrow books," she says.

It's also more than just a library. "The only places where people can meet are the library or the pub, but not everyone wants to spend money. The library is one of the few assets we have in the village."

Despite its impressive facade, inside, the library is just a single room. It consists of a children's area on one side, with novels and local history books stacked on the remaining shelves. There are a couple of reading chairs and a computer which, in the absence of any nearby internet cafs, is an important lifeline to some.

"Shadwell is often seen as an affluent village, but that's not necessarily the case," says Debbie Potter, chairwoman of Shadwell Parish Council. "There are a lot of older people that live here who don't drive and for many people coming here is a highlight of their day, so it's more than just a library, it's an amenity for the whole village," she says.

As well as saving the library, campaigners also want to keep building, a former Wesleyan chapel, in public use. "It's a listed building and outside on one side of the wall is an old burial ground for those without gravestones, so it has historical importance. If the building was sold it would presumably end up as a house, which would be a real loss to the village because Shadwell has very few amenities."

Inside, the library is in need of repairs but Mrs Potter claims these could have been sorted out earlier. "The library service are now saying it will cost thousands of pounds to sort it out, which is fairly galling because one of the walls has had a leaking gutter for years. The library services were aware of this and didn't do anything about and now the plaster is coming off."

Only around 20 people use the library every day but the campaign to save it has united the village. "We had a public meeting back in November about the library's future and everyone, to a voice, was adamant that they wanted to save their library and this building." She says it's not only pensioners and disabled people who would struggle to travel to a library outside the village. "There are a lot of young mothers who come here with their children who say that getting on a bus and going to a library in Leeds when you have three small children and buggies is a non-starter."

Some local authorities are looking at extending their mobile library networks to offset the library closures, so perhaps that can provide an answer? "The problem is what time would it come? Because if it came to our village during the school run then parents might miss out. But if it came later then it might not be suitable for older or disabled people."

In Leeds, the council has just started a 10-week consultation process on its proposed library closures. One option could be to put the Prime Minister's much vaunted "Big Society" ideas to the test and allow the community to run the library, although Mrs Potter doubts whether they will get the chance.

"The basis of the consultation isn't wide enough, there's nothing about community groups potentially taking charge of any part of the library service, and no other avenues have been explored other than having a mobile library which isn't particularly welcomed."

If the library closes she says it will be a huge blow to the community. "It would be another part of village life being eroded. With all villages it's a fight to keep the pub, the post office and the library, you are just penalising poorer people, older people and disabled people."

George Hill, another Shadwell resident campaigning to keep the library open, wrote a letter to the Yorkshire Post last month in which he spelled out many people's concerns.

"Small local libraries are of great value to many people of all ages. The total expenditure on library and information services is a small part of local authority expenditure, from which no doubt other less damaging cuts could be found. In a society in which authorities are often accused of 'dumbing down', the closure of libraries would be an act of vandalism comparable, on a local scale, with Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries."

The role of libraries has changed dramatically in recent years, with many now offering a far wider range of services beyond just lending out books. In many cases they have become the hub of village life, providing free internet access to residents who can't afford a home computer.

Local authorities face the difficult, and unenviable task of implementing the government's public sector cuts, but many people fear that balancing books is costing us a high cultural price.

Living on borrowed time

In July, research by the Yorkshire Post revealed that one in 20 of our public libraries have been closed in the past decade.

There are now 19 fewer libraries than there were in 2001/02 – a reduction of more than five per cent.

Many councils have reduced the numbers of librarians working for them.

In October, Leeds Council revealed that 20 libraries are facing closure.

Last month, North Yorkshire County Council announced cuts totalling 20.5m from its budgets which could see up to 23 of its 42 libraries closed.