England’s Libraries and the Funding Crisis
Phil Bradley created a series of posters that were used by many different groups during Save Our Libraries Day on February 5 that were based on propaganda posters during World Wars I and II. The collection can be found online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/philbradley/sets/72157625923493122/.
A young advocate helps the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries on Save Our Libraries Day.
Another one of Phil Bradley's Save Our Libraries Day posters.
By Phil Bradley
Like many other countries, the United Kingdom has experienced a series of financial shocks, including a severe banking crisis. The home nations in the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) are funded differently, and each has its own unique financial and legal circumstances (and its own parliaments). Consequently, this article will focus on the current situation regarding libraries in England, specifically possible closures and other threats to library service. The point should also be made that it is not just public libraries that are affected: School libraries, academic libraries, and corporate libraries are threatened as well.
The financial crisis has led to widely held concern about the U.K. deficit, which consists of the borrowing required as the nation spends more than it raises by taxation and the subsequent interest on that borrowing. A new coalition government came to power in May 2010 with the stated objective of reducing the deficit faster than the previous Labour government and with a vision, driven by Prime Minister David Cameron, of a Big Society. The idea of the Big Society includes reducing the central government’s involvement in local matters, encouraging community engagement, fostering philanthropy, and reforming public services. The Big Society has become closely associated with the program of cuts to local government budgets and replacing paid staff with volunteers.
On October 20, 2010, the government released its Comprehensive Spending Review. As part of the program to reduce the national deficit, it called for a 26% real-terms reduction in funding to local authorities in England between FY2010–11 and FY2014–15. This put pressure on local governing councils to find significant savings in their budgets in a short period of time. A key target for many (although not all) councils is the public library service. The cuts that have been suggested by certain councils have gone far beyond a 26% reduction in spending: Some local officials have proposed that the majority of libraries in their county should be closed. Other councils have decided that, rather than close libraries altogether, they will reduce their hours of service and number of professional staff, and rely on the good will of volunteers and local communities to make up any shortfall.
The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals looked at the situation and estimated that more than 600 libraries in England could close, especially if communities don’t come forward to manage them. CILIP has expressed grave concerns about the level and extent of proposed cuts to public library services across England, particularly since an initial emphasis on taking the savings from local government grants means that radical proposals have been implemented quickly, often without proper preparation and consultation.
Many local communities have begun campaigning in support of libraries, with the swift creation of Friends groups as well as advocacy by authors and librarians. The Voices for the Library campaign group was formed by a small number of librarians (many of whom, it should be noted, are not employed within the public service) and these groups have all been active at both local and national levels.
CILIP stepped up its campaigning and advocacy towards the end of last year. Its new chief executive, Annie Mauger, wrote to all English Members of Parliament, reminding them that libraries are a statutory service and briefing them about the importance of libraries to the people they represent.
Save Our Libraries Day
A national day of protest, Save Our Libraries Day, was held on February 5. Many local groups around the country protested, and many celebrities became involved, either by joining in the protests or by holding free readings of their works in their own local libraries. People were encouraged to talk about libraries, contact their local media and politicians, use their library, tweet about libraries, and tell everyone they knew to get involved. The day provided a national focus for all the local campaigning that has been taking place. The event received huge media coverage: Most national newspapers, radio, and TV news, as well as local media, covered it. Save Our Libraries Day was so successful it has been decided to turn it into an annual event—National Libraries Day—to further emphasize that the threat to libraries is a continuing danger.
As a result, a number of local councils have shown signs that they are prepared to reconsider the cuts that they were planning, which is a positive sign. Examples of where this has happened include Doncaster, Somerset, Oxfordshire, Isle of Wight, and Hounslow. However, as the financial situation will remain under stress for some considerable time yet, it’s uncertain whether the news that some libraries are not going to close is merely a stay of execution. Even when libraries have been saved, opening hours were reduced, departing staff were not replaced, and book budgets were slashed.
A great deal of work remains to be done in order to save library services. Some groups have continued to challenge their county councils. The Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries obtained an injunction against the council from the High Courts halting the implementation of their cuts. Despite some positive news (such as councils deferring decisions), the picture still looks bleak, with public library services and services for young people set to see the greatest budget cuts of all front-line services, according to the Local Government Association. Sixteen percent of local authorities said they are looking to make proportionately larger savings in FY2011–12 on libraries, cultural services, and community learning; 22% are planning cuts on services to young people.
At its Annual General Meeting on June 8, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (WI) voted with a 98% majority in favor of campaigning in support of public libraries. With over 208,000 members and a history of campaigning on a wide range of important issues, the WI is respected as a powerful lobbying force. “WI members confirmed their support for local library services today and have pledged their commitment to fight to prevent local library closures wherever they are proposed,” said WI Chair Ruth Bond. “As an educational organization, WI members clearly recognize the worth that local library services bring to communities, often in isolated areas, and we will now work hard to prevent such services being removed from the areas where they are often needed most.”
While the situation is grim, I would not want to give the impression that the library service in England is being systematically destroyed—far from it! Over the coming months CILIP will continue advocating, lobbying, and campaigning for the value of all library and information services, and that of the people who deliver them. Plans are to ratchet up its lobbying of central government politicians and to encourage CILIP member activity during local elections through such efforts as its Vote Local, Vote Libraries campaign. Furthermore, we are seeing some victories against the closure of libraries: Campaigners in Gloucestershire have won a stay of execution after a judge gave them permission to challenge the legality of the local council’s plans to close libraries; and the views of over 35,000 people in Suffolk who signed petitions against library closures have been acknowledged, forcing the council into reconsidering plans to close 29 of the county’s 44 libraries. February 4, 2012, has been set for a national Love Libraries Day, which will be another opportunity for everyone who cares about their library to protest in a positive way against closures.
PHIL BRADLEY is an internet consultant in the United Kingdom who specializes in search and social media training for a wide variety of clients, from libraries to corporations to government agencies. He is also 2011 vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.
American Libraries, Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:56