Wednesday 1 August 2012

Library closures. Is that so bad?

Dan Jarvis, Labour’s shadow culture minister, is hoping to pick up some twitter followers and stir the middle classes with his call to stop government cuts of libraries.

Libraries come under the funding of local government. Its the local authorities who decide on local cuts. Most local authorities raced to close their libraries once the much reduced budgets of 2010/2011 were announced.

Another 225 are at risk.

They aren't wrong. Those 225 would have been closed long ago except for an astonishing series of blunders, illegal actions, distortions of data and  failure to properly consult by district councils.
They shut libraries on a purely budget basis without considering their social obligation and the requirement in law for councils to provide a library service.

"A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said it estimates that only 60 libraries based in buildings have closed over the last year. This does not include figures for mobile library closures."
Which is disingenuous as that department knows full well that there are very many awaiting appeal and the subjects of legal action. Plus a whole host have been given a 12 month reprieve only.

So libraries are in the front line and have been and will be hit by evil coalition cuts.

But do we need libraries?

There were 315 million visits to all the 4500 libraries in {2010/11} which was a fall of some 7% on the previous year and continued the trend of 5-10% falls in footfall numbers year on year. And footfall might just mean people popping in for a leaflet. Or to read the paper. Or to ask a question of the locality. Many of those visits will be to borrow CDs and DVDs. Or send emails. Kids hanging out after school and so on.
I'm very conscious of my own hypocrisy in signing up to save the local library. It is one of the smallest in the country and has a tiny footfall and employs just 1.5 people. And I have never used it. Not once in seven years. Even though I am the perfect library demographic of white/ middle class/kids aged 2-10/ pick the kids up from local school and walk right past the place on the way home. Eldest could read at three years old and reads, to my cost, a book or more a week.

However, libraries are public services. They are for all. I don't use the bus service either but don't feel that it should be discontinued. But i've long wondered why we supply VHS/DVD's music and video games for free? Just to sustain numbers? 
CD sales and DVD's numbers are also in long term decline. Downloading is the new vinyl.

Libraries are very 19th century in their model. 

The main cost of libraries is in the buildings and personnel. The tiny one in my constituency costs around £35,000 a year to run. The catchment area is 1000 households. It would be possible to take a single year's budget and give the poorest 1/3 of the town a free kindle. {Hat tip Winton House who corrected the glaring error of a free E-reader for all}.
The following year a £100 of book tokens each of those homes. Or just look out for those with need, those on benefits, kids under 16, single mums or whatever the current disadvantaged standard is. Over time the library cost shrinks to perhaps just 10-15% of its current spend.
And remove the disgrace of VAT on e-books as they are 'software' and its cheaper for all.

Some say that the library is a internet cafe for those unable to afford a computer.
Fine. Its still cheaper to give, for free, a basic laptop and a discount for broadband to the very poorest than to have a dedicated building for their use. Or put the computers into village halls or local clubs. Or local amenities that are already in use. Like  Information centers. Council Offices. Post Offices. Kid's clubs. It could be a part of planning for any new supermarket. An area for 'free' or limited charge internet use.

Or, conceivably, an arrangement with WH Smiths or Amazon or Harper Collins would allow some to receive books by post. An internet style Library. Order on your phone/telly/laptop and have the book posted out and then posted back after 'x' weeks. Love Film for books.
It would be quite expensive to do that.

But not as expensive as sustaining 4,000 odd public libraries and all of the support services. The proposed cuts will amount to the loss of some 10% of library services. 
If we can't cut a service that is in long term decline, with falling visitor numbers, that can be relatively easily replaced, redesigned or reformed by technology then what can we cut?


Winton House said...

"The tiny one in my constituency costs around £35,000 a year to run. The catchment area is 3500 people. It would be possible to take a single year's budget and give everyone in the town a free kindle."

Do they lend out maths books ? :)

Bill Quango MP said...

Oh, what a howler.
1,000 households in my library notes.
Going to shrink that example a bit.

Thanks for the correction.

Alan Wylie said...

"then what can we cut", a very good question, well let me start with Trident or a nuclear deterrent of any kind, Bankers pay and bonuses, MP's pay and expenses, Consultants of any kind, sending troops to fight imperialist oil wars, by now you've probably sussed my politics and where i'm going with this! I will end by suggesting that you read

Budgie said...

BQ, I have no sympathy whatsoever for your viewpoint (and none for Alan Wylie, either).

Our taxes are made to make our eyes water, yet whenever there is a squeeze it is the services that get cut, not the bureaucrats, quangocrats, management, consultants and so on.

What we will end with is a government that does nothing but churn our money, producing no usable services at the end of it but still spending 50% of GDP. I know too much about local and national government (EU too, I suspect) and NHS waste and inefficiency.

Keep the services - at least the b----s then have to produce something - or chop the entire department.

hatfield girl said...

It sounds a decent argument though what do you do if you don't know where to look, what to order, what to look up, the names of any authors or have the remotest idea what is out there?

Mr Q, you do sound rather like someone who's had lots of access to libraries and their librarians on your way to not needing a lot of help now.

Bill Quango MP said...

Alan Wylie: Trident keeps us at the top table with the US and French and Chinese. Its a horrific cost though. for something we will never use.
If all MPs were paid nothing the savings would barely pay the rates on the library buildings.
Your point that there are hundreds of things to cut is clear. Yet no one wants a cut to any thing. There are pro/con arguments on all sides.

I'm happy for libraries to continue. Volunteer libraries seem like a non starter to me. As do all these volunteer schemes.
But I'm also happy for a 10% cut to them. 10% isn't much in the scheme of 28% government department cuts.

Banks have cut 10-20% of all branches in the last 20 years. Post Office numbers have fallen by 30%.
Cds, video games and Dvd shops have faced some of the biggest closures since 2008. I think its over 50,000 jobs in those retail stores alone.

And 10% means 90% remain.

Budgie: the impossible task of reducing government. No government since 1945 has EVER spent less than when it came to power. There is a stat that just over the Blair spending era 2002-2007 health spending rose 73% and education 244%.
most of the coalition 'cuts' as planned are only going to reduce services to 2007 levels. That was a level after an unprecedented spending boom. 50% and even 60% tax rates are here to stay.

HG: I'm sure I did go to libraries. I can't really recall so probably not since primary school. But certainly advantaged in other ways.

Are books so expensive that they have to be loaned? Fuel gets no such enlightened status. There are no cars for hard pressed mum schemes.

Why must books be loaned in print? Not loaned in electronic/non cost format?

{and remember, Harry potter was on sale at £3.49 at Tesco when it was released.}

And .. I'm not advocating an end for libraries. just a change of mindset. For example why could not a library be part of Waterstones?
they are in the right locations already. They are paying the hideous rents and rates and staffing costs. they have plenty of stock. Why can't they do a deal with HMG to be library agents and operate a sale/return book basis?

Why can't schools {at least one in every mini village in the land} have a librarian within them?
The library part stays open/part open? throughout the school holidays. Along with the building that could also be used for various mum clubs/day care groups?

BTW I read about 1 or 2 books a week. I love reading. I value it.

But my kids get books from their school library. The teachers guide them on books. They have volunteer parents who do reading clubs and learning to read specials for the kids who are really struggling.
the argument that without libraries kids would be illiterate seems to imagine we have no schools and no OTHER way of using our resources.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest that public libraries were created from following deontological ethics.

We are now in a age where consequentialism or pragmatism rules and everything has to have a 'benefit case'.

I guess as the West slumps further into multi-generational decline, we'll be into full-blooded utilitarianism when deciding who should have food\fuel.

hatfield girl said...

Sorry Mr Q, I hadn't understood the breadth of your argument.

Librarians at easy-to-access points with most books down-loadable, and many free-to-read would be a great improvement on the inappropriate antiquarianism that surrounds books-as-objects.

Imagine if all the library building maintenance money was spent on accomplished travelling librarians who could be consulted in all the places you mention.

Budgie said...

BQ, it's like I said on here two years ago - government depts cannot be made more efficient, all that can be done is cut out the function in its entirety.

So your paring of libraries cuts the frontline at the cost of making the service less efficient. Your 'remedy' actually makes things worse. Which is why I oppose it.

Functions can be cut out of government. But that is just it - they must be chopped out completely. The obvious candidates are: leave the EU (£100bn/yr); close DfID (£10bn/yr); sell off the BBC; scrap the Climate Change Act; scrap 90% of quangoes.

Do that and we would be in surplus without cutting services, and without harming anyone (except a few EU politicians and aid junkies).

lilith said...

The school library would only lend Calfy one book a week when she was in primary. So without a library to feed her 7 to 15 books a week habit I would have gone completely crazy.

Anna Jacobs said...

You forget one hugely important service provided by libraries. It's a place where people meet.

There are groups for OAPs and older borrowers, who definitely can't afford to buy even a quarter of the books they want (and need) to read - and anyway, they need to get out and meet people as well.

There are all sorts of other groups, eg mothers with young children, book groups, story telling for children - all sorts.

And it's a place where children can borrow books of all sorts, many of them not for sale in the shops. Don't forget how important it is to invest in the workers of the future.

I borrowed and read 12 books a week when I was at school - and not from the school library, which was much smaller and whose resources I'd soon exhausted.

If you close libraries, you'll be sending more people to seek the help of social services as they crumble under the strain of loneliness and boredom. Or sentencing them to utter loneliness.

Shame on you for knowing so little about what libraries really do!

Bill Quango MP said...

It was always going to be controversial to suggest closing a treasured institution. And, as I keep writing, I'm not.

A proposed 10% reduction is not the work of philistines destroying the literature of the nation. its a reduction in a service that is used far less than it used to be.

Public toilets are almost extinct. That's a genuine service that councils provided. now, they don't.
A very modest public toilet has a running cost of some £10-30,000 PA.
That's why they have been closed.
people aren't peeing in the streets. They use alternatives. That means the local pub/cafe/club/ fast food outlet.

Specifically on topic withi the constituency one parish council increased council tax to pay for library provision{and youth services} as they had been axed. There was and is an onging outcry council tax payers.
What it boils down to is
- we want all the services we have always had
- we don't want to pay anymore for them
- no cuts to anything

The same constituents complaining about the council tax rise complain in the same letter that the toilets have been closed!

Not raising taxes and not remaining within budget will lead us to a Greek situation.

Lilith: Quite. Ms Quango delights in telling me she has finished whatever novel I've just bought for her.

But merging the library service with the school library should alleviate that problem. More books.Bigger range. Longer hours and aimed specially for the school's children.

anna jacobs: You have hit on the hidden cost that exists in all our services that are under threat.
Back to toilets again. that hits the elderly harder for obvious reasons.
The closing of banks and post offices is damaging the very many millions of pensioners now aged 70+ who are not part of the digital age and want to access their cash.
They are hit disproportionately by bus service removal.
They aren't very well catered for in council supplied leisure areas, unlike youth, who get a large slice.

So libraries do provide a service that isn't quantifiable.

But that doesn't change the footfall numbers. Libraries are declining in popularity and visitor numbers.
if they are going to stay open they are going to have to merge.

Does moving the library into the school, so saving a huge % of the operating cost, not make sense?

[ And I am aware of all the associated problems of security - children at risk from visitors - access - staffing etc I don't think that with a bit of planing they are insurmountable. }

And again. The proposed cuts amount to 10% of libraries.
9/10 remain.

Elby the Beserk said...

Just back from our local library, where I returned three books, and collected another three. Two of them ILL orders from other consortia.

I love my library. Mind you, I spent 25 years writing software for the libraries of such as Oxford Uni., Trinity College Dublin and the National Library of Wales, so I am biased yes. Oh yes, I also installed the demo system which won us a contract with the Vatican way back.

So yes, I am biased. And yes, I would be cross if my local library closed. Not only is their catalogue not a bad one, and one which enables me to make the frequent ILL (Inter Library Loan) requests I make; add to that that browsing alone prompts me to order books I might not otherwise have read.

Thanks to Frome Library (who still use the reservation arrived email form I designed for them in the 1980s when Somerset was a customer), I have of late had possession of

"Dylan's Visions of Sin", Christopher Ricks fantastic lit crit work on the Bobster, a book which gives Lit Crit a good name (it was the arid world of Oxford lit crit that put me off serious fiction for years after my degree).

Larkin's Complete Poems

How England Made the English - Harry Mount's book on the history of English landscapes and towns, and

After America, Mark Steyn's look at the slow death of the USA.

Certainly I can't afford to buy all these books. Certainly, some I might not have come across without the library.
Certainly, I would read half as much without our local library.

If ever there was a Public Service, it is our libraries.

Oh and yes - eBooks my eyes swivel in their sockets, and whilst I grok that the Kindle is a pretty neat device, reading of screens is NOT for me. Nor is too much of it good for you.

Dick the Prick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Budgie said...

BQ said: "- we want all the services we have always had; - we don't want to pay any more for them."

Indeed. And why should we?

But in any case you are waving a red herring. I am not seeking to retain libraries as you cheekily imply, I am saying that cheeseparing results in reduced frontline services, without the commensurate savings you imagine.

Government employees do not seek efficiency they seek to maintain their sinecure. As I said: "Your 'remedy' actually makes things worse" by cutting the public service without cutting the bureaucracy behind it. The reality of your scheme is to reduce efficiency.

Multiply that up (because politicians and bureaucrats love to extend their empires) and we get a government that churns money but does not actually do anything useful.

Abbote Mann said...

Though technology helps us to have a reliable source like computers, it's still not good to close the libraries. It is indeed the best source ever. So the closures will not do good to people.