Libraries have been part of our society for over 150 years, ever since the Public Libraries Act of 1850 deemed them an essential tool to ‘raise educational standards throughout society’. Their existence allows members of the public to borrow books for free, and for the poorest communities in the country, they are irreplaceable. To deny a society the use of a library condemns the wish to learn. It is perhaps for this reason that Conservative plans to close many of them have been met with such vehement opposition.
On the 5th February, nearly 100 public library events were held in opposition of the threats that have been imposed upon public libraries. Authors such as Philip Pullman, Kate Mosse and Mark Haddon added their support to the flurry of impassioned activity throughout the country, which included an all-night sit in at New Cross Library. Across the country, 500 out 4,500 libraries have either been closed or are under threat, with some counties facing cuts of 20-30%. The ConDem government has assumed that the work of librarians will be taken over by the ‘Big Society’, but their blasé attitude to a profession and service that has been part of our society for so long now only emphasises the philistinism that seems rampant throughout the cabinet. It is unsurprising that a government full of millionaires would not be able to understand the importance and relevance of the service provided by libraries, and another depressing reminder of how woefully out of touch they are with us mere mortals.
The threats in Sussex are comparatively minor, and we are lucky to have the award winning Jubilee Library that opened in 2005, although as a county East Sussex still faces around £313k of cuts to libraries. Shockingly, many of the cuts are set to disproportionately affect the poorest communities. There are now lawyers acting on behalf of the town of Lewisham due to the fact a decision was made to shut five libraries despite a petition containing over 20,000 signatures. Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act, this action could be subject to legal challenge. Stranger still, Oxford County Council has now deferred its decision on cutting libraries until the summer – nothing to do with the fact that it affects the surrounding areas of David Cameron’s constituency, then?
The threats to libraries are in danger of being ignored when placed beside larger cuts to public services, but it is an all too worrying fact that we may not realise the vital role they had until it is too late, and the entry that they provide into a passion for reading will be gone.