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This item is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

Birmingham is opening the largest public library in Europe. This bucks a trend. Generally, public libraries, those that survive the current Department for Culture, Media and Sport-inspired cull, are being re-invented around new furniture, not books but computers. In refurbishments, books remain as part of the décor, but central are the digital platforms the libraries afford. On 31 July the Independent 'revealed' what it headlined 'the full cost of the cull of public libraries': nothing new, more of the same. 'More than 150 libraries have been closed or put into the hands of volunteers in the past year owing to the Government spending squeeze, with a further 225 at risk as councils look for ways of finding savings'. Library funding cuts average 7.5% this year. 2,100 staff have gone and opening hours reduced.

'Thirteen libraries have been shut in Leeds, five in Bolton and three in Liverpool.' There are five public libraries to be closed in Bolton? Six in the borough of Brent? Five in the Isle of Wight to be handed over to 'community groups'? The base line. 'There are currently 4,064 library buildings and 548 mobile libraries in the UK. The Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) recently estimated that 2,159 posts in the library service would be lost in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from a total of 20,924 staff, a reduction of more than 10 per cent, and said 3,000 opening hours were being cut a week. It forecast deeper cuts in 2013.' A map of the remaining libraries, their scale and usage might help in fighting for preservation, or not. Rupert Murdoch's compadre, the minister for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt MP (for South West Surrey), is not for turning. His department has challenged the numbers without offering precise corrections: 'around sixty static libraries have closed. It is also true that many local authorities have opened new libraries.' (How many?)

In the wake of the article, Independent readers conducted an ill-natured debate. 'Tom Snood' declared, 'The public library is now called the internet. Get over it.' 'Dark Heart of Toryland' replied, 'And what about the many people who rely on the public libraries for access to the internet?' Temperatures rose, the argument for maintaining libraries boiled down to this: that 'people on the breadline' could access the internet there. 'niged' rallied behind the anti-library brigade. 'You can have a whole library of ebooks from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Nietsche [ sic] for zero cost. The Internet has revolutionised access to such material and far better than traipsing to your local library for a dog-eared, snot-covered copy of a book that won't be available for three weeks because someone else has borrowed it.' He was promptly branded a Tory. Several correspondents remembered the formative impact of the public libraries on their lives. Not many seemed aware of the changes the service has been undergoing over the last twenty-five years.

On 22 June in the Guardian a public letter was addressed to the Head of Libraries and Archives in Manchester. 'The book collection of the Manchester Central Library is an invaluable resource not just for the north-west, but for the world,' we affirmed. 'It contains literary, commercial, educational and political records going back 150 years, street directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and volumes concerning the history of science and engineering. The majority of the collection covers the period between 1850 and the present day. The quality and depth of this collection was arguably rivalled in this country only by the British Library - it was certainly unique amongst public access collections.'

Signatories, myself among them, were alarmed that library refurbishment entailed a steep reduction in book stocks: 'it is now admitted by the library service that 210,000 reference books, formerly stored in the famous stacks, are to be removed. Other sources suggest that the original estimate was as high as 500,000. This destruction has been going on behind closed doors for over eighteen months already. No one seems to know how much, or what, has already been lost.' We 'demanded' various things: an immediate end to the stock purge, a list of the books so far destroyed, and a list of what is still scheduled for destruction. We assumed that someone was keeping a record. The Central's specialist librarians have not been part of the stock consultation process.

Who were 'We, the undersigned'? Not all sentient life was represented. Writers of course, a retired Hacienda disc jockey, academics from the humanities (no scientists, economists or linguists bestirred themselves, or were invited to sign, the two cultures driving on their separate highways), librarians from other institutions, and 'Media', a catch-all term which includes theatre directors, publishers, and the founder of Coronation Street. (Ken Barlow is the Library User par excellence.)

A broader constituency of advocates is required if the library service is to survive. I wonder how many petition signatories regularly visit public libraries? Piety and nostalgia are potent forces, but vulnerable to the exercise of reason. 'Tom Snood' has a point and needs answering. That answer will include the phrase 'digital access'. It will also include the words 'public collections' and 'authority'.

This item is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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