As hundreds of libraries close across the country, it is time to think radically about how to reinvent themby Sameer Rahim / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History edited by Alice Crawford (Princeton, £24.95)
Speaking at the opening of Manchester’s Free Public Library in 1852, Charles Dickens declared an “earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the cellars of the poorest of our people.” This library was the first in Britain to be supported by local taxes. The Free Libraries Act of 1850 allowed municipal authorities to charge ratepayers a penny to fund book-borrowing services—on the condition that two-thirds of them agreed. In Manchester, the mayor John Potter led a successful referendum campaign, and then solicited donations from the whole range of Victorian society—from working men’s committees to Prince Albert. An increasingly literate and politically engaged population was hungry for knowledge, and groups such as the Chartists—who had fought for the 1850 act—and philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie ensured that free access to books was rapidly spread across the country. By 1900 there were 295 public libraries in Britain. A library act in 1919 abolished the penny tax and allowed county councils to build libraries without a referendum, paving the way for an enormous rise in library numbers. By the 1990s, in addition to school and mobile libraries, there were 3,500.
Over the last few years, the consensus that libraries are an essential part of national life has been eroded. The coalition government’s cuts to council funding resulted in 337 library closures; those that did survive reduced their opening hours. Even Birmingham’s swanky £189m library, which opened in 2013, announced earlier this year that it would cut its opening hours and lay off staff. Now the new government is proposing a further 10 per cent cut to council budgets and libraries are likely to bear the brunt. Organisations such as Speak Up for Libraries have sprung up. Alan Bennett and Zadie Smith have said they could not have become writers without libraries. Ed Vaizey, the minister in charge of libraries, is legally obliged to maintain a “comprehensive and efficient” service, but he has had little to say about the closures.
Why are libraries targets? Council leaders point to a…