Libraries for the many, not the few
Speech by CILIP CEO Nick Poole at the ‘Opportunity for all: Setting Labour’s vision for Libraries’ fringe event at Labour Party Conference 2018 at Liverpool Central Library. Chaired by Gill Furniss MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries, with Kevin Brennan MP, Julie Ward MEP, The Lord Bird, Councillor Wendy Simon, Councillor Gary Millar and Nick Poole on a panel. The Labour Party Conference fringe event is part of political engagement by CILIP at party conferences, including the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats.
Good morning, and thank you to my esteemed colleagues Gill Furniss MP and Kevin Brennan MP for organising today's event.
Our great public libraries and their counterparts in schools, prisons, colleges and hospitals are founded on a powerful idea - the idea of equality and democracy, of universal empowerment for working people.
In his 1950 essay The Library Service in the Welfare State, Raymond Irwin wrote,
"Today we have the fully-fledged system of social services that we call the welfare state. It is not the sudden creation of the last few years, but the culmination of a long series of developments stretching back to the French Revolution, all centering around the gradual recognition of the value and dignity of the individual person, whatever their station in society and whatever their wealth or poverty might be".
The gradual recognition of the value and dignity of the individual person, whatever their station in society.
In the same essay, Irwin goes on to write;
"The whole purpose and aim of libraries in a democratic country is to encourage individual citizens to learn how to think things out for themselves, freely and without pressure, how to base their reasoned opinions on observed facts, how to live a full creative life of their own, a life that is intellectually honest and independent."
Our libraries are among the UK's most widely used and trusted civil institutions. We have over 250m visits to public libraries, nearly 90m visits online. The most active user group is 18-25 year-olds, and the demographic of library users is more diverse than any other cultural activity.
A modern library is the Common Room at the heart of its community, supporting learning, health and wellbeing, helping people get online, use Council services. It brings people together of all ages and faiths, helps overcome loneliness and social isolation in every town, city and village the length and breadth of our nation.
How a civilised nation treats its libraries is a barometer of how it values its citizens. And in today's Britain, a Britain of austerity and inequality, we should be outraged at how our libraries are being treated.
In 2010, there were 4,446 libraries in the UK. In 2017, that number had fallen to just over 3,600. In some Councils, our provision of libraries per capita is among the lowest in Europe.
Of those, around 500 have been surrendered to volunteerism - cast adrift from Local Authority support despite the statutory basis of library provision under the law. Between 8,000 and 10,000 skilled, dedicated and professional library workers have lost their jobs.
This is not normal. This is not ‘living within our means’. This is a wholesale assault on a vital civic institution that is in turn a vital part of the fabric of an equal, prosperous and inclusive society.
In the words of the great socialist reformer Lord John Bird, speaking at a House of Lords debate on Libraries two years ago, "if you want to cut libraries, do that. But do it on the understanding that you will need to build more prisons, build higher walls around your house". This is about the kind of society we want to live in.
In our schools - while most independent schools are actively developing professionally-run libraries to support and enhance curriculum-based teaching, thousands of state schools either have no library at all, or an unstaffed room filled with aging book stock and no librarian. Every child deserves a great school library, whatever their station or whatever the wealth or poverty of their parents might be.
In our prisons, a lack of adequate staffing and resources means that thousands of prisoners are unable to access their prison library even for the minimum of two half hour sessions a week. We hear horror stories of privatised prisons in which the library is left locked and unstaffed for months on end - preventing prisoners from completing courses of study or improving their education.
Public libraries are a great socialist institution - from each according to their ability to each according to their need. But we have to be honest, as many libraries have been closed or hollowed out in Labour Councils as in Conservative or Lib Dem Authorities - largely due to the extraordinary pressures of our broken Local Government funding system.
That is why we desperately need a coherent national and local policy from the Labour Party to build literacy and opportunity for the many, not the few. We need a policy which:
- Provides fair funding for Local Government to secure the right of every community to benefit from a quality local library, professionally-run, properly stocked and staffed;
- Reintroduces the idea of a National Library Service - a vital C21st infrastructure for literacy, learning and empowerment;
- Targets funding and policy for schools and colleges to ensure that every child and young person can benefit from a great school library and a professional librarian;
- Ensures that prisons abide by the Prison Service Instructions to provide at least the basic entitlement of every prisoner to adequate library services
Labour has the opportunity to become the party of literacy and empowerment, to lay the foundations of a better future for generations to come. Support our libraries to create a fair, equal and democratic society that works not for the few, not for the many, but for everyone.
Headline image photograph of Peckham Library from Ellen Forsyth's Flickr feed, Cropped and re-sized. (CC BY 2.0)