Two answers from United Kingdom by John Pateman and John Vincent:
How do you, from your personal perspective, value the situation of the public library in your country?
Public libraries are facing 2 significant threats to their future existence:
1. The legal basis for a public library service in the UK – The 1964 Public Libraries Act – is being reviewed. This Act makes it compulsory for every local authority to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library service. If the Act is repealed then many councils will not continue to provide a public library service. If the Act is amended – Eg to remove the provision for the free loan of books – then councils will be able to charge for this service. Charges are already being introduced for the loan of e-books and it will be a small step to extend this to real books.
2. Public spending cuts, ostensibly to reduce the national deficit but really driven by political ideology, are forcing councils to prioritise which services they can continue to fund. Although public libraries are very popular with the public and are well used, they are not deemed by councils to be as important as other services such as schools and social care for the elderly. Some councils are just closing libraries to save money while others are trying to keep them going by staffing them with volunteers or transferring ownership to local communities in line with the government’s so-called ‘Big Society Agenda’ .
Would you say that the support of public libraries is strong among the people/in your community/society?
Public libraries are still very popular with many people in society who have an emotional attachment to them even if they do not use them very often. They are regarded in a similar way as the National Health Service which is free at the point of need. Whenever a public library is threatened with closure a local campaign group is formed which attracts plenty of support and publicity. However, there are also many people who say that we can no longer afford public libraries because they are a luxury at a time when the country needs to save money. There is also a growing view that libraries are old fashioned and have been overtaken by e-books and the internet.
1. How do you, from your personal perspective, value the situation of the public library in your country?
As you will know, this is a sad period in public library history in the UK. Whilst some libraries are still thriving, many have had their funding/staffing cut, and a growing number is actually being closed – or turned into ”community libraries”. The current Coalition
Government is making the reduction of the UK’s budget deficit its no.1 priority, which has led to savage cuts across the public sector. Linked to this, the Government is pushing its ”Big Society” policy which, whilst it may have good intentions (getting local people more involved with services, for example) is also being used as a way of saying that the voluntary sector and local people can pick up responsibility for actually delivering services – it has already been shown that, whilst this may have a degree of success in richer neighbourhoods, it is highly unlikely to work in deprived areas – and deprived areas are getting more deprived under current Government policy.
As a result of all this, many libraries are also pulling back to what they see as ”core” services, eg little or no outreach, stopping social justice programmes, etc.
2. Would you say that the support of public libraries is strong among the people/in your community/society?
I think that, on the whole, public libraries have not made a good job of creating relationships across their communities, so, as noted above, wealthier areas may value their libraries and people would be prepared to volunteer to run them, but this is certainly not the case everywhere. Whilst visits and issues may be dropping, I don’t think this means that people think less of their libraries – some people are finding different ways of using them (eg online), and some people, sadly, have never seen the value of libraries so have never used them.
At the same time, lots of people do still use their libraries, particularly for activities and support for children & young people.
However, the support in communities for libraries is growing, eg the public anger over the threatened closures of libraries in Somerset and Gloucestershire, leading to a legal challenge in the High Court, which has been won (for now!)