Libraries in peril

15 September 2010 | By Cause4 staff

Cause4 blogged in July about Ed Vaizey’s championing of libraries and his insistence that libraries “have a home at the heart of the Big Society” - Libraries and The Big Society. Since then, with cuts looming, the future of libraries has become subject to increasing threats. The Reading Agency, pleaded in The Guardian last week that libraries should "not be a soft target for cuts". In doing this, they emphasised the vital role that libraries can play as cornerstones of the community.

Triggering the current focus on libraries are statistics released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport last week. These suggest that nearly two-thirds of our population did not visit a library during 2009. It strikes us at Cause4 that in engaging one-third of the population, some 20 million people, libraries are in fact providing a service that is conspicuously successful! Do 20 million members of the British population visit museums? Or attend football matches? But that is not the main point.

Even supposing that current levels of library-use might be judged unsatisfactory, the solution, we suggest, lies not in abolishing libraries but instead in adapting them, in helping them to offer a more dynamic, broader and interactive service in direct response to the priorities of the communities in which they reside. In placing the broad needs of the community as a whole at the heart of libraries, we quickly shift away from the traditional concept of the library as a silent mausoleum into which we hesitantly venture to borrow books. Instead we can begin to see the library at the heart of every community, providing a focal point for people from every walk of life, for those that belong to local voluntary and community organisations, fulfilling a need that once perhaps was filled by the local church, the local pub, the local theatre group.

It is this ability to support local co-operation by using a national institution like libraries that reflects the ambitions of the Big Society. The Reading Agency’s creative reading programmes have so much more to offer beyond encouraging literacy amongst children. They put people in touch with people to foster a sense of belonging to something that is so much bigger – and so much more valuable - than the individual. The part that libraries can play should not be taken as read!

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