Roger Ratcliffe brings the library closers to book

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These words are being written under the roof of what has become a seriously endangered British institution – a public library.

This particular one occupies a lofty position in the hilltop village of Baildon, from where it looks down on the city of Bradford and a town hall that is plotting yet another round of library cutbacks. The building – typical of the 1970s shoebox school of architecture – was opened by mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, and as well as a library it contains Baildon’s community hall.

But last summer the council embarked on a consultation exercise (aka “going through the motions”) as a prelude to most likely selling the site to a private housing or office developer in order to avoid spending £500,000 on repairs, a bill that keeps increasing because the council gave up on vital maintenance. A cynic might say that’s what councils do these days – let a public building fall apart as an excuse to make money out of it.

My inbox is now awash with emails from Bradford Council advertising public meetings to discuss library cuts. Services will be concentrated in the biggest libraries, to become known as “community hubs”, and it is perfectly clear that the idea of local libraries like the one in Baildon will eventually be consigned to history.

The same thing is happening everywhere as local authorities realise they have been starved of yet more cash by central government. From Hull to Manchester and Sheffield to North Yorkshire I hear stories of libraries under threat, either targeted for closure or their opening hours slashed as councils try to prioritise legal commitments to social care with what money they have.

Last year a total of 127 static and mobile libraries were lost in the UK, adding to a further 500 axed since austerity was launched by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition in 2010. And last week a study by the Centre for Cities thinktank showed that the north had borne the brunt of austerity. Three of the worst hit councils – Barnsley, Blackburn and Liverpool – have had to drastically reduce their library spending.

The importance of libraries should not need stating. My library habit began as soon as I learned to read. But libraries are not only about book borrowing. I frequently visit them to work, enjoying the studious atmosphere created by being in the company of others doing the same. There are also book clubs, children’s readings, racks of newspapers and magazines, and knowledgeable staff who know their way round the library’s reference books. Sadly, though, an increasing number of councils are making their trained librarians redundant and replacing them with far less capable volunteers.

I see young children being brought into libraries and taking out books all the time, and so promoting the reading habit and thirst for knowledge in younger generations is not something which should be blithely dispensed with by a stroke from an accountant’s pen. I fear that if we keep running down public libraries as we are now, our country will pay an incalculable high price in years to come.

The Victorians introduced them with the Public Libraries Act 1850, offering free knowledge for a growing population. By strangling council finances, the Tories are gradually killing off this great institution. If it continues, books will be available only to those who can afford them.

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