Books

Lord Bird takes literacy fight to Parliament

"The problem with austerity is that it’s too expensive. Before we allow another library to close, we must ask: Is this a saving?"

Library bookcases

Big Issue founder Lord Bird has warned that the government must be ready to build more prisons and homeless shelters if the libraries continue to close at the current rate.

Lord Bird was speaking during a House of Lords debate on the the damage of illiteracy across Britain and the crisis facing public libraries and independent bookshops.

“I am here to talk about poverty,” Bird told the chamber. “The poverty of the streets, the poverty our libraries and the poverty of our bookshops.

“We’ve lost more than 500 libraries since 2010. If you are going to cut libraries you must be prepared to build more prisons, to build more homeless hostels. Libraries are essential, yet what is happening is that they are being cut.

“I recommend that Her Majesty’s Government supply some emergency relief money to stop local authorities doing this dastardly deed, this process of philistinising our communities,” added Bird, who was appointed to the House of Lords as a non-party crossbencher at the end of last year.

“That is one thing they must do. Another thing they must do is make sure that every school in the country has a library. Many schools do not. Think again.

“If we make a saving here, we will make a loss elsewhere. Health, sociability, work and all other issues will come into play.

“I beg us all, before we allow another library to be lost or librarian laid off, to think seriously, ‘Is this a saving?’.”

Baroness Rebuck, Labour peer and chair of Penguin Random House publishing group, thanked Lord Bird for calling this debate and spoke of the importance in supporting libraries and bookshops in improving literacy levels in Britain.

“For me, the big issue — if I may borrow a phrase from the noble Lord [Bird] — is books and their enduring importance to civil society and the extent to which both bookshops and libraries are essential to their continued success,” said Baroness Rebuck (pictured below).

“Without both, we will not achieve 100% literacy, which is an essential aim in the 21st century and a bedrock of social mobility, social cohesion and a strong economy.

“Libraries should be seen as key community centres, open to all, where, alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services.

“Reversing the decline in library provision and ensuring that every school has its own library will be a start to reversing the decline in the literacy skills of our young.

“We are the only developed nation where our young people significantly underperform their elders, according to the OECD’s 2012 survey.

“Our poor performance is also affecting our economy. It is estimated that more than 9 million adults of working age in England have low basic skills, which is costing our economy around £80 billion per year.

“The big issue is: how can government assess and help to rebalance the competitive landscape in bookselling in the UK, and encourage more people to value our bookshops before we lose them altogether?

“Central government also need to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.

“We have a stark choice. If we lose our celebrated bookshops and libraries we will never improve our nation’s literacy.”

Earlier this year, Bird co-launched a Project Literacy campaign in the House of Commons with model and actress Lily Cole to emphasise the importance of “social literacy”, highlighting his own journey from illiteracy and how learning to read and write changed the trajectory of his life.

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