Libraries: Open books | Editorial

People who know how borrowing books helped to transform their own lives now need to hold their councils to account

Naturally, those who most loved libraries as children are now their most articulate supporters. Some were dismayed by Margaret Hodge's report on public libraries earlier this year, which praised the network as "a triumph of infrastructure and branding". In the coalition era, they may be equally crestfallen at the Future Libraries Programme's promise of "customer service improvement opportunities" in Greater Manchester.

Do not be deceived by the familiar jargon. The government's current vision is very different from Lady Hodge's. The 10 projects are testbeds for many of the ideas that the coalition would like to apply to other public services. Two London boroughs are considering a merger of their library provision. Suffolk wants community groups to manage them. Most controversially, some of Bradford's books could be moved into shops. Lady Hodge's excellent suggestion that a library card be issued automatically to every baby has been ignored. More understandably, her enthusiasm for ebook lending – which sounds pleasingly modern, but is fraught with copyright and technical obstacles – has also gone. National guarantees are out; cheaper offerings, aimed specifically at the communities they serve, are in.

Recruiting more volunteers to help run libraries is a laudable idea (though it may well come at the expense of professional librarians' jobs). Only 15,000 people currently volunteer.

The internet has made some of libraries' traditional functions almost redundant, as well as driving down the cost of books for those who can afford them. Yet given the pressures they face, libraries have held up rather well: 83m children's books were issued last year, which represents around 90% of the number lent out a decade earlier. The same period has seen broadband installed in every library and a boom in reading groups.

Faced with budget cuts, many councils will be tempted to retrench. They will freeze new acquisitions, cut opening hours, and perhaps charge for book clubs and children's storytimes. Some libraries will probably close altogether. The risk is that this is done as quietly as possible, in order to avoid an outcry, and without giving local people the opportunity to support their services in ways that may not have occurred to them. But a bigger risk exists: that libraries in affluent market towns are saved thanks to middle-class activism, while those in poorer areas see their book stocks shipped off to a windowless room in the supermarket on the ring road. People who know how borrowing books helped to transform their own lives now need to hold their councils to account – and not just for their own sakes.


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