As she embarks on her six week Laureate library tour, Julia Donaldson has penned an open letter to Maria Miller, the newly appointed Culture Secretary, to ask the Government to act swiftly to save Britain's libraries.
Dear Ms Miller,
Congratulations on your new appointment. I am writing with a plea.
In my role of Children’s Laureate I am about to embark on a six-week tour of UK libraries, acting out stories with visiting schoolchildren. The main aim is to celebrate libraries and all that they have to offer children – the books, the browsing, the author visits, the research facilities, the toddler rhyme sessions and summer reading programmes. But I’m also hoping that the tour will draw attention to the erosion of the library service which is happening in so many local authorities, and to the current government’s utter refusal to intervene or to provide any leadership.
Recent figures from Public Libraries News show that nearly 250 UK libraries are currently either under threat of closure or else have been closed or left council control since April this year. A survey, conducted by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, estimates that during this financial year 2,159 library staff posts out of a total of 20,924 will be cut. This is on top of huge cuts in previous years. These vary disproportionately from authority to authority, so that while in some areas children and families can still have access to a safe space where all are equal and welcome, in other places this is no longer so, with cuts in budget of up to 35 per cent and cuts in book stocks of up to 90 per cent.
The 1964 Libraries Act states that every authority must provide a 'comprehensive and efficient' library service and that the government’s duty is to investigate when there are serious complaints that this is not the case. Yet this government has not once intervened, even in the case of Gloucestershire where nearly half the libraries were scheduled for closure last year. Your predecessor Jeremy Hunt and the Libraries Minister Ed Vaizey refused to respond to letters, invitations and presentations by the campaign groups, except by parroting the assertion, 'We are monitoring the situation', so that the campaigners were forced to take the local council to court (successfully). When I met with Ed Vaizey in February and asked him why he had not intervened his reply was, 'Because my advisers didn’t advise me to'. Could you, in your new post, please give him some guidance from above?
Mr Vaizey also told me that he 'did not accept' that there was any problem in the library service. This may be because he is happy with the idea (now a reality in some areas) of libraries being run entirely by volunteers. I am shocked that he could consider this anything more than a short-term measure. This summer, while visiting France, I had an engagement in a village library whose users were thrilled because at last they were getting a professional librarian. Yet we are going in the opposite direction. Of course volunteers have a role to play, and of course it is preferable to have a volunteer-run library than no library, but what I object to is the tendency to dress this trend up as 'vibrant twenty-first-century thinking', instead of being honest enough to admit that it is a reluctant response to cuts.
I am particularly concerned about the effect the cuts and closures are having on children’s reading. Today many towns have no bookshops. If they also have no library, where are children to find books? Is it a surprise that we are always reading horrifying statistics about the number of homes without books? If children don’t discover what books they like, they are unlikely to become life-long readers, and we are therefore heading for a less literate society. Illiteracy leads to lower skills, greater social problems, higher crime rates, and a country less able to prosper in the global jobs market. So cutting libraries is a false economy. They are the best literacy resource that we have.
Children’s use of those libraries which are still open has actually been rising over the last seven years, so please don’t deprive them of the storytelling sessions, the homework clubs, the expert librarians and, above all, of the free books. Will you consider ring-fencing council spending on children’s library services? Will you discuss with your colleagues the possibility of using some of the education budget for this purpose? Above all, will you (unlike your predecessor) respond to concerns and complaints, and show some leadership for our young readers? I do hope so. I would be more than happy to meet with you to discuss this further.
PS. Visiting the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition I came across this poem by Bernard Kops, who is more eloquent than I am. Here is an extract:
I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide
when a door called my name and pulled me inside.
And being so hungry I fell on the feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
And my brain explodes when I suddenly find
an orchard within for the heart and the mind.
The past was a mirage I’d left far behind
And I am a locust and I’m at a feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
Find out more about Julia's Children's Laureate Library Tour.