Lincolnshire County Council has recently announced plans to cut its library service to the bare minimum required by law. This means that some 29 libraries will close, out of a total of 44. Now, I’ll be honest, and say that I don’t make a great deal of use of the branch library in my village, (although I do use Lincoln Central Library quite frequently). The reason I don’t use my village branch library is that it doesn’t have the resources I tend to use, and anyway it (mostly) only opens during the hours that I’m at work. I only mention this because the reason that is given for this wholesale closure is that the number of books being borrowed is falling. Indeed the council’s own consultation document argues that only one fifth of the county’s population is borrowing books from the library.
That is not a figure I dispute. What I do dispute are two things. First that the number of books borrowed is in any way an accurate measure of library use, and second that a service that is regularly used by one fifth of the population is in any way underused. First, let’s deal with what libraries actually do. Personally, even though I do use Lincoln Central Library quite regularly, I can not remember the last time I borrowed a book. I regularly call in to read publications such as the Spectator, the New Statesman the Times literary and education supplements, and a variety of special and local interest magazines. I would argue that this is a profoundly valuable service, (after all, politicians are always bleating that no-one is interested in politics, so you would think they would want to encourage people to read these things). I presume I am not the only person to use the library service in this way. I certainly see others leafing through these periodicals quite regularly (Usually when I want to read them, but never mind that for now). My point is that I, and presumably my fellow journal readers would not buy all these publications if the service were to disappear. Even if it were financially viable, I would not wish to fill my house with what would eventually become waste paper.
Of course, I don’t only go to the library to read free periodicals. I occasionally consult reference works (It may come as a shock to younger readers that not everything is on the Internet, and further that not everything on the Internet has been subjected to the quality control that a publisher would apply.), and sometimes, I pick up the leaflets about local services that are displayed in various racks, or left on the tables. I would argue that all this makes me a better informed citizen, aware of what is going on in my city and county. Yes, I use the Central Library, which is not under threat, but I am reasonably mobile, and I am not fool enough to imagine that circumstances might one day arise in my personal life that would severely restrict my mobility, and this why a network of branch libraries is so vital so that people out in the villages can tap into its services. Finally, if I may indulge in a personal reminiscence, and a brief virtual trip across the Pennines I am still grateful to Oldham’s excellent library service for the contribution it made to the development of my imagination and curiosity in my formative years. (It’s still excellent, in my view, and the new (ish) Central library and art gallery building is the first thing I’d direct a visitor to the town to see. Actually, it’s probably the only thing, but that’s another story.). I do not believe for one minute that any technological environment can replicate a child, even a pre-reader running from one book to another, and turning the pages to see what happens next. You just don’t see the same delight on their faces when they press the buttons on a Kindle. You certainly can’t measure it.
Which brings me to my second point. This claim that only one fifth of the population of Lincolnshire uses the library service. Even if we equate book borrowing with library use, which I think we can conclude is absurd, that is still pretty impressive. I suspect any other media in Lincolnshire would kill for that level of penetration. I read somewhere that Radio Lincolnshire is listened to by about 5% of the population, and I don’t know what the Lincolnshire Echo’s sales figures are, but the fact that it has gone from a daily to a weekly paper in the last year, suggests that it may not be enjoying the most robust of circulations. Further, the numbers argument can be applied anywhere. I personally am no longer related to any children of school age. I don’t know how many people are. Probably a minority of the population of Lincolnshire.. Shall we cut the schools then? Or perhaps school transport? As I go to work each morning I regularly see a fleet of buses shuttling through my village each ferrying what appears to be a single child to school. (Yes, I know they’re probably just starting their journeys and I’m exaggerating for effect, though not by much.)
To get back to the point though, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the council that the reason people might not be using libraries (in the way that they can measure – as I demonstrate above, their benefits are not so easily measured as their costs), is that they’re not open at times when people might want to use them.
Actually, I’m sure it has occurred to them. I thought I’d finish with a second hand account from a colleague who was able to attend the Council’s executive committee when it met to discuss the closure plans. I quote
“It confirmed all my prejudices. If you can imagine a room full of puce-faced Tories, gleefully cutting everything for the sake of it, without any thought for the social consequences, then you pretty much have it. It was all ‘How soon can we cut this, or that? Isn’t this great?’”
Now I wasn’t there, and that’s a second hand account, and an admittedly partial one. But a careful reading of the consultation document really does lend credence to the idea that that is how it might well have been written.