I read a book once…

Tomorrow’s some sort of nationwide day of civic action on behalf of libraries. There’s disgruntlement going on up and down the land, and if you look at that link you can find some shushing and tutting a mere footstep away.

My contribution is this little addendum to the library argument that’s in full swing from Penzance to Perth.

It’s a small point, but it’s been irking me ever since this all kicked off. It’s provoked by the common-sense smuggins-es who keep retorting to the “access to information = access to democracy” argument, by going:

Yeah, well when was the last time you went to a library? Why should the government put my tax money into something no one uses?

Or words to that effect. And it’s not just the self-made-man, up-by-the-bootstraps, throttling-me-with-red-tape spluttery types that are at it. Versions of the thought have flashed through plenty of usually-thoughtful bookish minds too.

From whatever quarter they come, these are surely cart-before-horse arguments. Time for a history lesson.

In 1970 Edward Heath’s Tory party won a general election having made manifesto pledges of £1.7 billion in public spending cuts. Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, proposed to garner some of the savings from introducing a scheme of library charging, but the idea was too unpopular to get through cabinet.

When Thatcher became Prime Minister herself in 1979, she found herself quickly bemired in trench warfare with her local authorities (who nominally at least are the ones that actually control library spending). The result was a systematic stripping of power from local government, which is why central government still has so much control over supposedly local library funding. In the early 80s, she also slipped through 15 per cent cuts to higher education, and had another crack at abandoning the free library altogether. But I’m just throwing those tit bits in to keep you interested in the narrative. Verisimilitude, don’t you know.

By 1993, librarians were complaining of  diminished stock, access to libraries, staff, and technological resources. Some people thought this was a terribly good thing too. The librarians disagreed.

‘It’s like ‘The Road,’ they said.

‘But that won’t be published for another 13 years yet,’ said The Baddies.

‘Well if you hadn’t starved us of funding, we’d know that kind of shit,’ riposted the librarians.

Both sides of the debate went about issuing reports.

Then the Tories were ousted and Labour got in…

…and nothing happened.

In 2004, more research came out which said library usage had declined by 21 percent in a decade, and recommended ‘that public libraries triple their acquisitions budgets, increase opening hours by 50%, and redecorate and refurbish their facilities to become more attractive to the public.’

I think you can see where this is going… bleak inevitability and all that. It’s like The Road again, which is now the only book any library stocks.

The small point I’m hobbling towards is this: you can’t starve libraries of resources over three decades, make them desperate and unattractive, and then complain that no one uses them. It’s like turning up at a boozeless party and complaining no one’s doing tequila shots off each other’s navels.

End of point.


That was a full stop.

~ by David Thorley on February 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “I read a book once…”

  1. Good post.

    Yeah, you could rewrite that entire for: the health service, railways, power infrastructure, telecomms…

    Oh yeah, most of that is privatised in one form or another now.

    And then people go abroad and start whinging that the services ‘over there’ are so much better than here.

  2. True dat. Thanks for commenting. Probably best not to get me started on the health service though…

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