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Libraries: Why we must fight for the right to read

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Popular, empowering and free – that's why the Tories hate libraries, writes Alan Gibbons
Issue 2236

The public library service is in crisis. The government’s slash-and-burn approach means a 28 percent cut in spending on them.

Libraries are one of the first targets for the axe, with cuts being “front‑loaded” in the first year.

Already funding is being withdrawn from around 400 libraries, threatening them with closure. Only half of local authorities had reported at the time of writing, so the final figure could be 800 or even more.

In areas like Suffolk, Gloucestershire, Doncaster, Oxfordshire, Lewisham, Barnet, and many more, this could mean the closure of around half the branch libraries. The Isle of Wight could end up with just two.

At least 1,000 library workers are set to lose their jobs. Opening hours are also being cut, which is disastrous.

When local communities are unsure when their library will be open they stay away, leading to a spiral of decline.

Book funds are being slashed by 75 percent in Nottinghamshire.

All of this is happening as Britain’s position in international reading league tables has dropped from 7th to 25th in a decade.

The report from which these findings come observed that British teenagers are less likely to read for pleasure than those in high ranking countries like Finland.

Just a year ago culture minister Ed Vaizey was thundering that Labour was destroying the service. Now he is presiding over the worst cuts in its history.

They have stirred up huge opposition with demonstrations, petitions, meetings and read-ins. One meeting in Somerset drew 10 percent of the local population!

It is not difficult to see why people in these areas are so attached to their libraries. They don’t just provide free book-lending.

They provide access to computers for people who don’t have them at home. They provide expert staff who help people. In its true sense, the library is a focal point for the community.

At its best the library gives ordinary men and women the access to information and culture.

This allows them to challenge their alleged betters’ view of the world and stranglehold over its levers of power. Books are weapons. Information is power.


Agitation for publicly funded libraries free at the point of use has been central to trade union, socialist, democratic and radical thought since the birth of the working class.

The origins of the public library service lie in the first piece of legislation, the 1850 Public Libraries Act.

The main instigators of the act were radical Liberal MPs William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton, and the Chartist Edward Edwards. He became the first librarian of Manchester Free Libraries.

The struggle to establish free public libraries was part of the growing clamour for better conditions towards the end of the 19th century.

It belongs to the same demand for reform that led to universal education, school meals and municipal utilities.

Some employers and politicians realised the truth of Lord Hailsham’s judgement after the Second World War that, “If you don’t give the masses social reform they will give you social revolution.”

Trade unionists and socialists saw libraries as part of working class “self‑improvement.”

Many wealthy philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie saw them as a way of making working people more respectable—and less likely to go to the pub, strike or riot.

By 1926 most of the population had some form of library access.

But the institution of the modern British library was finally secured by the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

The 1960s were the golden decade for libraries. Spending grew by half. Staff numbers grew 40 percent.

This came to a shuddering halt when Margaret Thatcher took office. Councils started to erode library provision and by the 1990s a parliamentary committee judged it a “service in crisis”.

New Labour did nothing to restore its fortunes. We now face a fight for the very future of the public library, particularly local branches.

Socialists and trade unionists should be at the forefront of local activities, supporting their community’s right to a free, universal library service.

In the words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Alan Gibbons is an author and organiser of the Campaign for the Book, which is calling for ­protests and read-ins across Britain on 5 February. For more go to


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