Activism

Battle to save Britain's libraries as budget cuts, closures and austerity leaves future uncertain

Libraries change lives, as Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho knows. So, he got on his bamboo bike to join one in every local authority in the UK. Here’s why

Four people in a library

Waterstones Children's Laureate Joseph Coelho receives his membership card at Wrexham Library

Growing up in a single-parent household on an estate in South London, for Joseph Coelho the local library “was hugely important in so many ways”. It was within the wood-panelled walls of West Hill Library in Wandsworth that a summer reading challenge ignited his love of books, setting him on the path to become a poet and author and, ultimately, the current Children’s Laureate.  

Joseph Coelho with his bicycle in a library
Coelho on his bamboo bike

“We had books at home, but it wasn’t an academic household,” Coelho remembers. “So having that access to books was important. It definitely made me a reader. We’d go there every night after school to revise. We didn’t really have room within our homes to go to each other’s houses and study together. But we could all go to the library and get all our coursework done.” 

Coelho’s story will resonate with many, particularly working-class people, whose lives have been changed by their local library. But as we enter 2023’s Libraries Week – the annual celebration of these everyday temples to learning – their future is uncertain.

Cuts that run deep 

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, local authorities’ budgets have been increasingly stretched, as successive central governments have cut their grant funding. 

Birmingham recently joined a growing list of councils that have declared effective bankruptcy, issuing a section 114 notice this month in an admission that it did not have enough money to cover its liabilities. It is the sixth council to do so in the last five years. At least 26 more are at risk, according to the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities, a leading local government group.  

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Faced with conflicting priorities, from social services and schooling to collecting the bins, councils have frequently viewed the library service as an easy place to find savings. Spending on libraries has fallen by almost half (47.9%) since 2010. 

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 places a legal duty on councils to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service” but does not define what that means in practice, leading Andrew Green, formerly of the National Library of Wales to brand it “toothless”.  

A visit to Edinburgh

“For the last 10 years libraries have had to do more with less,” adds James Gray, marketing and advocacy manager for Libraries Connected, the charity that represents England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

“There comes a point where there’s no fat left to trim.”

An investment not a cost

Joseph Coelho knows more than almost anyone about the profound impact libraries still have in communities all over the UK. On 7 October, he will arrive at the British Library in London on his homemade bamboo bicycle. It will be the last stop on an epic tour, during which he will have joined one library in every single local authority across the country. That’s an incredible 213 library visits since 2018, and the same number of membership cards added to the collection in his “big old folder”.  

“One thing that binds them all together is the fact that libraries are the hearts of communities. I can’t think of any other spaces where anyone can just walk in and you can just sit and you don’t need to buy anything,” he says. “You can be warm. You can get advice. You can get book recommendations, but you can also weigh your newborn baby or get new batteries for a hearing aid, take part in a Lego club or go and see works of art.” 

Shetland

From a reading nook looking out over a beach on the Isles of Scilly to a converted one-bedroom flat outside Blackpool, a high-tech “makerspace” in Llanelli (where you can use 3D printers or learn to code) to a former church on Shetland, he’s experienced the extraordinary variety of UK libraries. Each of them was unique – and they are all vital to the communities they serve. 

In July this year, researchers at the University of East Anglia discovered English libraries generate at least £3.4 billion in value a year through services supporting children’s literacy, digital inclusion and health. The services provided by a typical branch are worth £1 million a year, the study found – meaning libraries’ value could equate to six times their running costs. It shows libraries are an investment not a cost, according to Libraries Connected, the charity that commissioned the report.  

Man holds up library card and a book
With his membership card at Stevenage

Yet numbers are falling. Coelho’s beloved childhood library, with its “wonderful” dedicated children’s librarian, is among those that has closed its doors for the last time. “That broke my heart,” he says. 

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the austerity agenda has seen UK library numbers fall by more than 17%, from 4,482 to 3,718. That’s 764 local sources of learning and community support lost in 13 years. There are 50 fewer libraries in the UK right now than there were before the Covid pandemic.  

And it’s not just about closures, says Gray, “it’s about opening hours, number of staff, how many new books, the types of events that they can put on, the state of repair of the buildings. It’s all those things.” 

Indeed Libraries NI, the body that runs all 96 public libraries in Northern Ireland, was recently forced to admit that due to a “significant funding gap” in its annual budget they wouldn’t be able to afford any new books at all in 2023-4.

Pride of Paisley

Meanwhile, in the Scottish town of Paisley, just outside Glasgow, the local council is pinning regeneration hopes on learning and culture. They’re about to open a shiny new £7m ‘learning and cultural hub’ in the town centre.  

Artists impression of the new Paisley Library
Artists impression of the new Paisley Library

Once known for its eponymous patterned textiles, as well as shipbuilding and food manufacturing, Paisley suffered in the wake of industrial decline. In recent years, it has been home to some of Scotland’s most deprived areas. Renfrewshire Council and OneRen – the arms-length charity that provides culture, leisure and sporting facilities in the area – hope the glass-fronted, four-story, turbo-charged replacement for their old central library will be part of the solution. 

“While so many areas are closing libraries, it’s wonderful to see such significant investment creating what will be one of Scotland’s best library facilities,” says Joyce Higgins, libraries and digital development manager at Renfrewshire Libraries. “It is an investment in accessible culture that helps to raise civic pride and, by repurposing an empty shop unit in the middle of the High Street, it will help bring new life and visitors to the town centre, which is essential to the local economy.” 

Many towns have a big Waterstones in the middle of the high street, she adds, but “we have a welcoming public library that can be used by all – and you don’t have to spend a single penny”. 

Spaces like this show the potential for libraries’ evolving future – bringing people together in a space where they can acquire literacy skills, information-seeking skills and digital skills. They are a proven, vital support to those facing hard times. 

Coelho is now a member in Shetland

As the cost of living crisis hit, libraries were an obvious network of public buildings to become ‘warm banks’, a place of comfort for those who were struggling to heat their homes in the midst of soaring energy bills. They’ve long been vital sources of respite for people experiencing homelessness. In London, Libraries Connected recently worked with charity Homeless Link to deliver “trauma-informed” training to librarians in Barnet, Brent, Hillingdon, Islington and Newham to help them support their homeless visitors. They hope to roll out the programme to more locations across the UK in the coming months. 

“Libraries are social spaces, both physical and virtual, where people learn, share, participate and create, where everyone is equal and welcome and where improving our shared wellbeing is at the heart of the service. They level the playing field for the disadvantaged,” says Higgins.

‘Fit for the 21st century’

The Paisley hub is one of a series of flagship central libraries aimed at boosting local economies. Reading recently won a £19.1 million Levelling Up grant to build a replacement central library and new civic centre reception area: “a modern, fully accessible, and versatile building which would be much more than just a repository of books,” according to council leader Jason Brock.  

A £12 million regeneration plan will see the King’s Lynn central library controversially relocated from its current home in a grand building opened by Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (one of 660 libraries built across the UK and Ireland with his help) to a former Argos in the city centre. “[It will bring] together library and adult education services into a more easily accessible central location, and [provide] a community offer fit for the 21st century,” a council report stated. 

The strategy is not new. In 2009, Cardiff’s new £15m central library opened (with the Manic Street Preachers unveiling a plaque bearing the words ‘libraries gave us power’, the rallying cry from their 1996 single A Design for Life). In 2013, the Library of Birmingham replaced the old Birmingham Central Library. A flagship part of the city’s redevelopment, it was described as the largest public library in the UK and the largest public cultural space in Europe. 

Banner says Save our Libraries
“Defend the Ten” protest in Lambeth in 2018, when 10 libraries were threatened with closure in the borough. Image: David Rowe / Alamy Stock Photo

Yet a decade on, the £189 million library has seen its opening hours cut by nearly half to save money. Following the local council’s section 114 notice – when they admitted they faced a shortfall of £87.4 million for 2023-24, forecast to rise to £164.8 million in 2024-25 – government-appointed commissioners are examining their assets. Just a decade after the fanfare around its opening, the Library of Birmingham might have to be sold off. 

Earlier this year, activists in Cardiff marched on their central library to protest against their council’s planned cuts. Adam Johannes of the Cardiff People’s Assembly called the proposals to slash opening times and recruit unpaid volunteers to replace paid librarians “a classic technique”.  

“Opening hours are cut, the service is run down, usage falls as residents find their local library is not open when they want and does not have what they want, this is then used as an excuse to close libraries,” he added.

A strategy for the future

One-off grants and state-of-the-art new buildings are welcome for the libraries that get them, says Libraries Connected’s James Gray but, as seen in Cardiff and Birmingham, they don’t secure a long-term future. In England, £4.9 million went to 27 projects in the latest round of the Libraries Improvement Fund – part of the government’s levelling up strategy. Essex County Council will receive £337,500 to transform the first floor of Colchester Library with an interactive learning and play space for children and families. In Stockton-on-Tees, £50,000 will allow the library service to update and develop the equipment in its collaborative workspace. 

“This will make a huge difference for those communities,” says Gray. “But it’s that model of having a big pot of money that everyone has to bid for. Those that don’t succeed feel quite dismayed because they’ve spent quite a lot of money on the bid and haven’t got [the funding]. So actually, it’s more about a fairer, long-term funding solution for local government, rather than more and more pots of money.” 

A new public library strategy for England – home to 2,892 of the UK’s 3,718 libraries – is due in early 2024. Former journalist and adviser to Theresa May, Baroness Elizabeth Sanderson of Welton has just completed a consultation with contributors from the library sector and beyond. She will soon present a set of recommendations.  

A rapt audience in Stevenage Library

Taking on the role, she said: “Libraries play such an important part in our lives, be that instilling a love of reading in childhood or encouraging economic, social and mental wellbeing. Too often undervalued, they are one of the most critical forms of social infrastructure we have and I look forward to working alongside the experts, and listening to a wide range of voices, so that we may help develop ideas as to how we may promote and protect our libraries into the future.” 

Naturally given his library odyssey, Joseph Coelho was among the people Sanderson consulted. So what did the man who probably has a broader insight into where UK libraries are now than anyone else, want her to know? 

“Just how vital libraries are,” he says, “and that space needs to be carved out for them to ensure that they are celebrated but also protected. They are so integral to community.” 

It’s UK Libraries Week between 2-8 October, when focus turns to supporting these much-loved community hubs. However, we want to go beyond that and hear about your local library and what it means to you. Have you been hit by a closure or reduced opening hours? How does your library contribute to your community? Are you worried about the future of libraries in the UK? Write to us at letters@bigissue.com

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