Raise Your Voice in Support of Libraries

John Gray, former librarian of the Linen Hall Library, makes the case for Northern Ireland's beleaguered public libraries

The first great world library in Alexandria in Egypt was destroyed by Roman or Muslim invaders, the Nazis systematically burnt books, and Sarajevo public library was deliberately targeted by Serbian forces for destruction during the Siege of Sarajevo – all landmarks in anti-civilisation. Things are more insidious here in Northern Ireland.

Last year ten out of 32 Belfast branch libraries closed because, in the management speak of Libraries NI, they ‘failed to match the vision requirements’. Now Stage 2 of their Strategic Review of Services rumbles on and delivers its dividend in the planned closure of ten branches elsewhere in the province. It is just another ‘opportunity’ for Meeting the Demands for a Modern Public Library Service.

Let’s be fair. There is an argument that too many branch libraries were in the wrong places and in inadequate buildings, and that closing some in order to provide fewer high quality libraries with better services offered a net gain.

That might just have been so. Unfortunately the latest news is that the capital budget for the new libraries has vanished. Meanwhile, under current cost cutting proposals those that survive face 15-20% cuts in their opening hours.

If you get to your local library in the hope of finding new books or a full range of electronic services you will increasingly have to forget it, as the book fund is cut from an already miserly £1.60 per head of the population to £1.01 in 2014-15.

Thus, even in prevailing business speak, the main library ‘product’ will progressively vanish and the ability of the service even to meet its basic statutory obligations is endangered.

So it is that Libraries NI, the new single authority for running Northern Ireland’s public libraries and for which much was once hoped (who now remembers Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries, 2006?) is actually delivering a communal lobotomy.

Protests thus far have been muted here. There is no equivalent to the English campaign against library cuts launched in October 2010, and we do not appear to be participating in ‘Save Our Libraries Day’ on February 5.

We have no local Phillip Pullman leading our counter attack – his January speech to a gathering of Oxfordshire librarians on the English cuts was subsequently published all over the internet, causing a storm and cementing his place as leader of the intellectual rebellion.

Perhaps it is because the onslaught on English libraries has been more evidently ideological. Our cutters in Northern Ireland have been careful to avoid going too public and have not proclaimed the more obvious Big Society absurdities and suggestions that libraries can actually be run by volunteers, charities, or privatised. Instead they will just close or be left impoverished.

We do have our own version of the Big Society in which all four major parties are represented on the Libraries NI Board and are quietly complicit in managing cultural disembowelment. Mrs Thatcher’s old mantra, ‘There is no alternative’, rises from the grave to haunt us!

In the case of libraries it may be a failure of ignorance as much as malice. Our politicians were never ‘great readers’, and why would you put a library before, say, a hospital bed, even if the community is left brain dead?

That is perhaps unfair to our minister for culture, arts and leisure, Nelson McCausland, who is himself a library user, but he runs DCAL, the smallest government department, where arts and culture generally are left at the end of the feeding chain.

Librarians themselves have been too self-effacing for too long. A silent service is hardly best equipped to fight its corner in bad times. There was always too much focus on merely safely managing the assets while failing to proclaim the cultural mission.

So who loses out? People in deprived communities who don’t have cars and can’t afford bus fares to some more distant super library. They are also the people who aren’t on line, and could never contemplate buying books.

It is extraordinary how easily middle-class boards and managers assume that stressed single mothers and their children, teenagers without rich parents, or impoverished old age pensioners can enjoy their mobility and alternative spending options.

The public library service should have another higher level role in providing research resources for scholars of all kinds, and in particular in the area of our own heritage. If it does nothing else it has a special duty to preserve and make available materials relating to our own society.

The Central Library in Belfast has been designated as the lead centre in this regard, but its planned £40 million plus redevelopment has been axed, and its plans for fulfilling its role are as yet a blank space.

What can we actually do? Surely this most vital of public services deserves a wide-ranging public campaign to save it and put it on the right track. If you want to catch up on what is going on with regards to the future of our libraries in Northern Ireland there is a useful blog on the Library and Information Services Council website at www.liscni.co.uk

By all means respond to the latest consultation on the strategic plan (deadline April 8) at www.librariesni.org.uk, but I fear your protests may fall on deaf ears.