What is the purpose of libraries? One of the oldest, founded in Nineveh in the seventh century BC, was a repository for works looted and collected for the “greater contemplation” of the scholarly Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. One of the newest was opened this summer in Barcelona, as a centre for Latin American literature, in honour of a one-time resident, Gabriel García Márquez.
Such grand statements of intellectual identity and aspiration seem a long way from the UK’s cash-squeezed local libraries. These were established under the Public Libraries Act of 1850 to provide free access to information and literature for newly urbanised masses with time to kill outside the working day, but have struggled to make a case for necessary funding in the age of cut-price bookselling, declining belief in print, and repeated raids on local government budgets.
In the first decade of the millennium, new super-libraries sprang up in an attempt to refresh and redefine the role of a sector that is notoriously hard to evaluate. Then the coalition government rolled in the era of austerity, and by 2019 – following a 25% cut in spending over the decade – hundreds of local branches had closed. The existential threat grew during the Covid pandemic, when lockdowns and branch closures dramatically reduced loans and visitor numbers.
It has taken the catastrophic cost of living crisis of the last few months to reassert the claim of the 3,000 surviving outlets to be the beating heart of their communities: places where people can go not only to find books, information and internet access, but also to play, meet up and keep warm. Some have been doubling as food banks. A pilot scheme in London to train librarians in dealing with homeless people will be rolled out to other parts of the country next year.
It is a value that was implicitly acknowledged in the latest three-year funding round by Arts Council England (ACE), the government’s arm’s-length body, which increased the number of library services funded in its national portfolio from six to 16, including several in culturally deprived areas. The sums involved might be small – a rise from £1.5m to £4.1m a year in total – but this represents a step change. It also marks a change of strategy, extending the criteria for eligibility to include information and digital as well as health and wellbeing, alongside reading, culture and creativity.
ACE only funds particular initiatives, such as creative writing programmes or outreach work. Responsibility for core costs remains with local authorities, and this is where the real anxieties lie, as councils struggle to balance the books in the face of yet more cuts. A recent survey of head librarians by the umbrella organisation Libraries Connected revealed that more than half anticipate having to reduce book stock and 45% expect to make staffing cuts in the next two years. Nearly one in four think they will have to close local branches. In a report titled Reimagining Where We Live, the parliamentary committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last month argued for increased central government support. It is vital that the government steps up. The cost of not doing so is unimaginable.