Saturday, 21 May 2011

Use it or lose it

I was surprised the other day to get an e-mail (albeit an auto-generated one) from the library, asking me to take part in their current consultation exercise. After I'd left work, I'd kept my old library card, although I haven't in fact used it in the intervening two-and-a-half years. It was pretty much a case of "I'll pop in and see you all again sometime"... but I never did. I did bump into a couple of people by chance, and heard some dark rumours about what had been going on after I'd left, but that was all it amounted to.

Driven I assume by the government's demands for public spending cuts, the proposals amount to the closure of 16 libraries, cuts in opening hours at all but one I think of the remaining ones, and consequent reductions in staff. The rationale behind it is declining levels of use, to the point at which those scheduled for the chop are "unsustainable in their current form" - including two which I remember being built from new during my last few years there.

Interestingly, one of the options on offer is to try and get the locals to take over the running of "their" library: what support there's going to be for this idea remains to be seen, but it was a concept that I recall was in fairly common use back in the 1950s - not that long before I started work. On the other hand, if no-one's willing to do it, then presumably the closures will go ahead, leaving large areas of the county without a library, although perhaps not - arguably - a "library service".

And that I think is the underlying question which this sort of consultation tends to fudge. In the 21st century, do we actually still need libraries? The successful ones which will remain are being turned into one-stop shops, advice centres, cybercafes, rock concert halls and police stations. The "virtual library" will be in competition with Amazon Kindle and any number of helplines, online forums and bulletin boards. And you can always have a few paperbacks delivered along with the week's groceries. Or maybe the good villagers of
Westbury-sub-Mendip had the right idea!

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