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Libraries facing major cuts

6 December 2010

Libraries are under threat as governments carry out major cuts to public services in both the US and the UK.

In New York Mayor Bloomberg last week announced sweeping cuts of $1.6bn (£1 billion) including Libraries, which will have their subsidies reduced by $20m (£ 12.67 m ), bringing the average days of service per week down by approximately one day per week. This is mirrored elsewhere in the US and everywhere governments are scrambling to make the cuts which will make their budgets balance.

The new government in Britain has just proposed spending cuts that could put a quarter of the United Kingdom's librarians out of work. Even though 3.4% of librarians have lost their jobs in just the past year, and more and more libraries are relying on volunteers to pick up the slack, more cuts are needed to rein in deficits.

It's a bad lookout for libraries, which are all too easy to cut, especially as regards their book budgets and staff, but this time local authorities are going for large-scale closure of branch libraries.

North Yorkshire is considering reducing its 42 libraries to 18 over four years, while Leeds is proposing to axe 20 smaller libraries. In Buckinghamshire, 14 libraries could become volunteer-run, in Gloucestershire, 12 will be closed if volunteers do not step forward.

Recent statistics from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy showed a drop of nearly 1,000 in the number of paid library staff in the 12 months to March 2010, a 3.4% fall to a total of just under 25,000. Over the same period the total number of volunteers in UK public libraries rose 7.7% to 17,111.

Library campaigners have mobilised highly visible authors to speak on their behalf. Philip Pullman says: "The librarian is not simply a checkout clerk whose simple task could be done by anyone and need not be paid for. Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished."

Kate Mosse's view is that volunteers simply do not do the job of trained librarians: "Skilled librarians don't simply say, 'Go to the third aisle on the right. They can show people where to start, and that is not the same as a volunteer saying, 'You might enjoy Danielle Steel.'"

Catherine Bennett has written in the Observer: "Of course, for the almost 250 libraries already earmarked for closure, their role in the happiness supply chain is probably irrelevant. By the time experts have established that, where the alleviation of ignorance, illiteracy, isolation, helplessness, unemployment, infirmity, boredom, neglect and poverty are concerned, libraries do, after all, offer something culturally irreplaceable, they will be gone. It is becoming clear that Mr Cameron's government will do nothing to protect them."

But there is one ray of light. Library campaigner Tim Coates is publishing a how-to manual for running a good library.

The Good Library Manual, offering advice on creating "a supremely successful, relevant, and modern 21st-century library" comes out from Berkshire Publishing this week, priced £14.95. Its prescription for running an efficient and effective library service is one which stands worldwide.

The Good Library Manual