We need a National Library Service

I know the political climate is not good for encouraging large new public initiatives, but the current problems facing our local, community libraries, with an estimated 500 facing closure this year as a result of government spending cuts, needs to be seriously addressed.

As today’s National Save Our Libraries day protest demonstrates, libraries are among the nations most beloved institutions, with a perhaps one of the strongest grassroots campaigns of any service threatened in this period of government cuts. And yet, a vast national programme of library closures is underway. By the end of this year it’s entirely possible that half the nations libraries will have been closed. A few years further out, with the libraries crippled beyond repair, we may find we lose them all as they become an ever softer target for cost cutters and privatisers. But, no one actually wants this to happen. Even The Sun is in favour of libraries. But no one quite knows what to do about them.

The irony of the library closures is that no part of our nation’s political spectrum is in favour of them (it would be a bit like being in favour of selling grannies or kicking puppies). Libraries have fallen between the cracks of our political system. Local authorities are being faced with the very literal choice between closing old peoples homes or closing libraries. They can hardly be blamed for caving in to the short term expedient of keeping elderly people from starving on the streets. National goverment has washed its hands of the situation. So the national provision of libraries is being destroyed, even while everyone applauds the value of the service.

So. Along with the campaign to save libraries, we need suggestions, or possibly even demands, for how they are saved. I suggest they should be along these lines:

1. A moratorium on library closures until…
2. …national review of library services…
3. …sets a national strategy for library provision.

There are two things to consider with this. The first is that the strategy must at the very least establish a central agency for libraries, even if its remit is largely focused on supporting local communities in developing their own libraries. The second is that libraries are in need of reform, and where it does not compromise the campaign to save them first, the need for reform needs to be part of the discussion.

And until those suggestions are met, SAVE LIBRARIES!


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

14 thoughts on “We need a National Library Service

  1. The first is that the strategy must at the very least establish a central agency for libraries, even if its remit is largely focused on supporting local communities in developing their own libraries.

    You mean like the MLA?


    1. 1. MLA has always been museum centric. 2. It has no actual powers. 3. It has had it’s funding cut and will no longer exist very soon!

      If you are going to make facile points, please research them first.


      1. I didn’t mean for my point to be facile, although I appreciate its briefness doesn’t make it very helpful. However, your two point plan to save libraries is a) local authorities should continue funding and b) the Government should set up an new national agency. Given that we know a) local authorities do not funding and b) the Government is reducing funding and closing its national bodies, how is your proposal anything but wishful thinking? Your solution boils down to a demand for more money and no one is going to give it to you.


      2. No, the demand is for the three points I made Martin. That may result in more or less money being spent, it does not ‘boil down’ to anything. I’m a strong believer in library reform, but before that work can be continued we need to save them from what is a shortsighted programme of cuts. I’m interested to hear any suggestions for protecting libraries though. How would you turn the current wave of good will in to effective moves to save libraries?


      3. I’m not sure libraries can be saved. There are going to casualties of the current spending review period and they are likely to be one of them.

        Since libraries are locally administered, successful action will be at the local level. At the national level, I don’t see that there is much you can do beyond complain to your MP that the statutory duty is not being discharged and not vote Conservative in the next election.


      4. I’m sorry you are so defeated Martin. The fight for libraries and what they represent has never been easy. Fortunately, there are many more people who haven’t just given up.


  2. I am pleased that someone is fighting to save libraries without their head in the clouds. The fact of the matter is that cuts do need to be made and it is unfortunate that councils see library services as prime targets. Having worked in a public library for over two years, I have seen that a library is not something that can be eradicated without a strong replacement. A library is not just about books. It is a free community centre. Many of the customers I serve come to libraries as it is the only form of human contact they get in their week. They might not be able afford books to read to their child, or home Internet, or a printer for their CV. A library is a safe house for the elderly, the young, the unemployed and anyone else that needs support. If this service is lost, councils need to replace it. Surely this kind of service is priceless?

    Unfortunately, I do not know of any solutions to this problem. However, I think Damien is right when he says that libraries are worth fighting for. Because really, what can possibly replace them? Getting rid of libraries means ignoring the needs of all of the above and I am not sure this country can afford to do that. In the long run, it would be more cost-effective to keep libraries, I’m sure.


  3. I must admit I’m worried the public library’s new master (mistress?), Arts Council England, will be primarily concerned with Literary Arts, and quality literature, and that the broader knowledge of our culture, and the expanding volume of literature on the Internet (seen as of lesser quality), and the economic role of the libraries in society, will be overlooked.

    Strategy wise, we’ve got to change from community libraries being modelled on a largely Edwardian model for a public library modelled and managed centrally — community libraries should be used strategically by the community and community leaders/councillors, and managed by the library librarian/manager who is an expert on the current body of knowledge on the subject of the value of our public libraries. Centrally (a national body to lead public libraries), because this is a relatively young and new field, they could start to consolidate and then build on this body of knowledge for libraries/library managers and communities to draw on.

    As to the leadership issue for public libraries, I have suggested in the past that we could do with a small non-political workgroup, onging not just one off because the pace of change is so fast and because public libraries are very much on a learning curve at the moment, consulting all concerned and engaged, assessing the ongoing value of the public libraries to society and advising the public accordingly. The group should be transparent and have a direct line to the public themselves (taking advantage of that transparency) in order to be fully informed of the public’s expectations and experience of the public libraries.

    My own tuppence ha’penny worth as to a master plan for the libraries :)


      1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/jan/25/arts-council-funding-rejections
        and especially
        are good sources for the Arts Council.

        On the plus side, they simply cannot be any worse at their job than the MLA. On the down side, they are obviously Arts based and libraries more naturally fall with Education/Literacy/Social Services than anything else they deal with. Also, on the down side, they start off their tenure in 2012 with £3m for libraries rather than the £13 the MLA (admittedly) largely wasted each year.

        There is a need for a national library authority. 151 library authorities make no sense. There is no central marketing, no economies of scale and no standardisation. At the moment, some libraries are excellent and well-funded. Some are dire.

        Interestingly library usage has gone UP recently – http://thoughtsofawannabelibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/library-usage-increases/ – not DOWN like we are repeatedly told. Libraries are in fact a success story. Nor are they past their sell-by date – South Korea (who have an excellent hi-tech record) are building 180 more, not closing 500 – http://www.koreaherald.com/lifestyle/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20110126000678

        What is happening to libraries is a national tragedy.


  4. Indeed it is important to maintain Libraries. In Malawi we have community libraries in the rural areas and our organization (a local NGO) is coordinating one of the libraries. Community Libraries are useful facilities in the rural areas, however, the current challenge is to equip and stock them. Like in Malawi, most rural libraries do not have modern facilities like computer, printing machines, photo copiers etc.
    We would like to request if you have books, computers and other equipment to please send to our Library. Rural communities who come to our library find it useful and probably are the only source of information.
    for more information contact:
    The Executive Director
    Makawa Community Library and Resource Centre
    Community Initiative for Self Reliance
    Box 506

    email: joemakwakwa@gmail.com



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