October 4, 2013

Even the good news about Britain’s local libraries is bad


Money for local libraries: but at what cost?

When there is so much bad news being reported about Britain’s local libraries, from cuts to funding, to suggestions that they might become wine bars, it’s fair to reflect on the good stuff too, even if the good stuff might carry the marks of the bad stuff.

The Bookseller reports that ten library services around the UK will receive a share of £450,000, in a scheme run by Arts Council England, the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Some money! For libraries! And wait – these libraries aren’t all in the big cities either, but in Devon, Norfolk, Middlesborough and Hull —yes, even Hull!

So what’s the catch? These libraries are part of the Enterprising Libraries Scheme, and the money will go into, as The Bookseller describes it, ‘turning libraries into spaces that can help start-up businesses, providing coaching, advice, meeting spaces and IT support.’ There is no mention of books. Or reading. But chief executive of Arts Council England, Alan Davey, has made attempts to reassure us:

Yes, libraries are about reading and accessing information, but they are also at the heart of their communities, and can provide hugely useful tools for aspiring entrepreneurs and existing businesses.

He has a point, and the idea that libraries might become a place that can support the local economy during hard times will give hope to many wanting to improve their business skills and become entrepreneurs, and to local communities which might feel like they are crumbling as local council cuts take hold.

But it also speaks of two worrying trends, which come together in a perfect storm in this new scheme. First, the idea that libraries have to become something else, whether that’s wine bars or business centres, in order to be considered legitimate. Second, that aspects of life which should not necessarily be commercialized or held against the standards of business are becoming so under the Conservatives. What if there was a place where you could go and not think about making money, where you could be quiet and not have to talk to anyone or participate in anything resembling a conference. Where you could read and discover, and you didn’t earn a single penny, and that was OK?

But alas, we should remember and take heed of what David Cameron told us this week, because, surprisingly, his words apply to libraries too:  “profit, wealth creation, tax cuts, enterprise – these are not dirty, elitist words. They’re not the problem, they really are the solution.”



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.