Support our Libraries: Closures, funding and Covid recovery in Scotland
The late afternoon sun is beating down on the red sandstone walls of Whiteinch Library. Two days ago, a five-year national strategy placed buildings like this one at the heart of the Covid recovery. Scotland is the only country in the UK to have a libraries strategy. Culture Minister Jenny Gilruth said it had “communities at the centre of its focus".
And yet the cast iron gates of Whiteinch remain locked, and no-one can say when, or even if, they will open again. The railings, bedecked with posters and poems, are testament to the residents’ passion for the place, and anger at the lack of information. This anger is directed mostly at Glasgow City Council. A series of famous book covers have been subverted to attack its decision-makers. A Penguin edition of Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends now appears to have been written by council leader Susan Aitken. The Complete Angler has been altered to read The Compleat Mangler by David McDonald. McDonald is deputy leader and chair of Glasgow Life, the Arms Length Organisation (ALEO) responsible for funding and running libraries.
On the street outside, local residents talk of their loss. “I have lived in Whiteinch for 40 years and four generations of my family have used this library,” says Maureen Cannell, whose grandson Matthew, is carrying a placard. “I used it when I was studying to become a group analyst and took both my children to Bounce and Rhyme. Then my daughter used it to study for her psychology degree and brought Matthew to Bounce and Rhyme.
“We have all missed the space, and to think we might lose it permanently is devastating. We cannot let that happen.”
Like most services, Scotland’s 481 libraries closed during the pandemic. They began to reopen when restrictions were lifted in April. But, according to the Scottish Library Information Council (SLIC), which produced the strategy, 61 still don't have an opening date. Others are operating reduced hours or with reduced staffing levels.
Many local authorities say they do not have the money to reopen all their venues, especially those, like Whiteinch, which are housed in B-listed buildings and require repair and maintenance.
Of all the councils, Glasgow has seen the greatest public pushback. In April, it announced more than 50 venues, including libraries, would remain closed until more funding could be found.
The following month, residents in Pollokshields, who feared Covid could be used as a cover for axing facilities, launched their #Save Glasgow Libraries campaign. Several of the libraries at the centre of that campaign, including Pollokshields - have now reopened. But five - Whiteinch, Maryhill, Barmulloch, GoMA and the Couper Institute in Cathcart - remain closed, their futures uncertain.
Questions are now being asked about the priorities of the city council which has been controlled by the SNP since 2017. If narrowing the attainment gap is at the top of the party’s agenda, why is the library atHillhead - an area of relative affluence - open, but the libraries in Whiteinch and Maryhill - areas of relative deprivation - shut?
Meanwhile, the pitfalls in using ALEOs like Glasgow Life to run cultural services have been exposed. These charitable trusts, which are eligible for tax breaks, were designed to save councils money. But Covid put paid to their income-generating activities - sporting events, concerts, gym membership - which left statutory services like libraries twisting in the wind. In the wake of the pandemic, the council agreed to give Glasgow Life £100m-a-year, but this was not enough to reopen everything.
At the same time, however, local authorities have suffered successive central government budget cuts and their capacity to raise their own income has been neutered by a freeze in council tax rises. This problem is particularly acute in Glasgow. Between 2013 and 2020, it lost £270 per head per year in funding from the Scottish government. The city also contains some of the finest museums in the UK, including Kelvingrove, but - unlike Edinburgh and Dundee (with the V&A) - receives no central government money to help run them.
The result of this funding crisis is a gap between the espoused ambitions for libraries, as articulated by the national strategy, and what councils are capable of delivering.
“There is a contradictory narrative going on,” agrees Sean McNamara, head of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Specialists in Scotland (CILIP). “On the one hand, we are moving in a positive direction. Libraries here are massively used. In 2019, there were 40m visits and 20m books borrowed. The First Minister and the SNP are very supportive. We have a national strategy and lots of innovative projects.
“On the other hand, we have a local government funding settlement that does not support libraries in what they want to do. Year on year, it becomes more of a struggle. Though not very many have closed (far fewer than in England) there has been a reduction in opening hours and staffing issues, and the worry is that the pandemic exacerbates the problem at the very time we need libraries most.”
Nowhere is that contradiction more stark than at Whiteinch where residents feel a precious resource has been snatched away.
"I have had ME for 30 years," says Gillian Morgan, a fan of Peter May thrillers, who uses crutches. "I used to come once a week to borrow audio books because I can listen to them in bed.”
She has to buy them now. They are available online, but the selection is limited and in any case, she isn't very good on the internet. "But it's the loss of the physical space, too," she says. "It had a special feel to it. It was like coming to church. You felt you were part of something."
Morgan researched her family tree there and helped out at an ESOL class for refugees. “I learned far more from them than they learned from me,” she says.
Whiteinch Library is the last public building left in a community which was once at the heart of British shipbuilding .The council says it is in need of significant repairs; the campaigners say it is more or less serviceable.
"Starting with the construction of the Clyde Tunnel in the 1950s, everything has been taken away from this once thriving burgh," says Robert Mellish of the Save Whiteinch Library campaign.
The swimming pool shut in the 1990s. Directly opposite the library, the Burgh Hall - long-closed and dilapidated - serves as a harbinger; the ghost of Whiteinch future. Weeds are already growing in the gutter. How long before the damp seeps in?
IT’S not all gloom and doom. Many Scottish libraries are flourishing. They have adapted to modern needs with computer suites and activities like book groups, sewing bees and social history talks. Some, including Langside, are still in their original buildings; others have relocated to shiny new purpose-built premises or moved into existing leisure centres or creative hubs. When Bridgeton Library moved into the historic Olympia Building, it gave it a new lease of life.
At the brutalist Cardonald site, David McDonald is extolling libraries in general and this one in particular. “I lived round the corner and I came here all the time,” he says as I admire the sweeping wooden staircase. “I still remember the thrill of being old enough to leave the children’s section and move into the adult one.”
McDonald says the funding crisis affecting Glasgow Life is Scotland-wide and points out that in 2008/9, nearly 3% of national spending went on culture. The most recent GERS figures show it now stands at just 1.6%.
“Eight hundred libraries have closed across the UK since 2010, none of them in Glasgow,” he says. “Over two decades, this administration and previous administrations have seen the importance of libraries and tried to safeguard and reinvest in them.
“In my time in post, we have refurbished Cardonald, Castlemilk and Partick. Elder Park and Woodside are currently being refurbished and will open next year. And just prior to Covid, with the agreement of the community, we agreed to relocate Parkhead Library into a brand new healthcare hub.”
Of course Covid has had a terrible impact. Though the number of eBooks borrowed in Glasgow rose from 24,944 in 2016/17 to 136,565 (online) in 2020/21, the closures meant the number of physical books issued dropped from 1,956,293 to just 116,566.
Yet, as with other services, Covid also fostered innovation. The SLIC strategy document highlights the way in which some rose to the challenges they faced. OnFife libraries moved a planned Summer Reading Challenge online, and more than 500 children took part. Inverclyde libraries did the same to Device Advice, a face-to-face digital support service. Renamed “Techy Tea Breaks,” its videos helped the socially isolated stay connected.
Covid also kept everyone close to home. People worked in their bedrooms, walked in nearby parks, shopped on the High Street. Along with environmental concerns, the pandemic has repopularised localism and propelled the concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods - neighbourhoods where everything you need lies within a 20-minute walk - into the mainstream.
It is easy to see how libraries fit into that post-Covid context. Situated in the heart of communities, they could help increase literacy, narrow the attainment gap and foster social cohesion. But that requires both a shared vision and the resources to fund it, and both of these are proving problematic.
Last week, Glasgow Life issued a statement in which it appeared to suggest councils might fulfil their statutory obligation to provide an “adequate library facilities for all persons resident in their area” with an online-only service.
But in areas of deprivation, libraries help bridge the digital divide by providing access to computers and the internet to those who do not have them at home. Move the service online and how will they apply for benefits or jobs? How will their children keep up with their homework? Will they just keep falling further behind?
“There was a 600% increase in people accessing digital library services and eBooks during the pandemic,” says McNamara. “That was heralded as a success, and it was, but it could have a flipside. It could be used as a justification for not reopening libraries even though there are many things - decreasing the digital divide, reducing inequalities, reducing social isolation - that physical libraries do best.”
McNamara says countries with a strong local government funding model, such as Denmark, have created a radical hybrid of physical and digital services.
“Although the national strategy sets out a vision for a similar hybrid model here, the challenge will be money,” he adds. “To do it well requires staffing and that’s where the budget gets squeezed. So many people at ALEOs like Glasgow Life are on insecure or short-term contracts or they lose staff members and they don’t get replaced. That kind of culture doesn’t foster innovation. If the strategy is to succeed, it needs backing from national and local governments.”
Nor does talk of libraries as the mainstay of communities wash with those communities who are currently being forced to do without.
Sitting on the steps of the imposing Couper Institute in Cathcart, Mhairi Taylor, tells me pre-Covid, the library it housed was a vital lifeline for her and her sons, Edwyn, eight, and Ivor, five,
“When your children are little, and you have been stuck in the house and you are just about to go mental, you need a refuge” she says. “So we would come here. There was a separate children’s room so they could make a noise and there was colouring-in and drawing for them. The staff were super-helpful and they would give you tea. It was a haven.”
Taylor, who is head of equality, diversity and inclusion at Glasgow University, is also concerned about the fate of the building itself, which, like Whiteinch, is in need of some TLC. She worries it will be left to rot but also that it could be sold on. "I think Covid could be used as a smoke-screen for manoeuvring around taking out assets which are costly, but they can’t do that without consulting us,” she says, “I suppose we started the campaign to make the case for the library; to show it’s valued by the local community.”
Like the other groups, Save the Couper stages read-ins every Saturday. But Taylor says there has been little response from SNP councillors, or their MSP or MP. “What I find hard is that someone like Susan Aitken will go on Twitter and say 'we are not not closing libraries',” she says. “We understand we have been in a pandemic. We understand the context. We understand the challenges. But can you just give us a road map as to how and when local facilities will open? Can you at least talk to us, rather than having a Twitter spat with someone or speaking to the media?”
While Taylor is worried about too little engagement, others are worried about too much. From the moment it took control of the council, the SNP administration has been promoting “community empowerment” .If local residents come up with a project that is good for their community, the council will support them to set it up, then step back and let them run it themselves.
This “communitarianism”, similar in spirit to David Cameron’s Big Society, is seductive. It rejects the top-down approach that saw charities parachuted in to impose unsolicited initiatives on disenfranchised communities, then airlifted back out again as soon as the money dried up.
The SNP has presented it as an antidote to decades of "statism", but others have pointed out it builds on the New Labour trend of farming out public services to the third sector. Taken too far, it could see the council cede its statutory responsibilities to citizens who have already paid for the services they are now expected to run.
Since the scale of the budget shortfall became clear, the council has been encouraging community takeovers of closed venues under the People make Glasgow Communities scheme. Some local groups have been enthusiastic, but the unions have warned it could be a way for councils to cut costs.
There are particular concerns about communities taking over libraries. In England, cuts have seen hundreds of libraries pass into the hands of community groups, leading to a fragmented and inconsistent service. There, the legislation allows churches to run libraries raising the spectre of books being banned on religious grounds.
“Though it is important the community is consulted so their needs will be met, we would be very much against any moves to have volunteers take over the delivery of the service in Scotland," McNamara says.
“Library services ought to be managed and staffed by professionally-trained librarians so you get a consistent and trusted service.”
Staffing a library with volunteers may threaten uts long-term future and entrench social inequality.
"On paper, community empowerment is a good thing, " says Dr David McMenemy, Senior Lecturer in Information Science at the University of Strathclyde. "But in a well-to-do, middle class area you might have a lot of retired professionals who have the time and the social capital to run a library service, whereas, in a poorer area, people might be more worried about putting food on the table. So, with localism, the whole universal service concept potentially goes out of the window. "
Back at Cardonald, McDonald insists the council has no intention of shifting its responsibility for running libraries to volunteers.
Indeed, he points out community empowerment legislation was what allowed residents at Whiteinch to halt the council's proposed relocation of the library to Scotstoun Leisure Centre. They felt it was too far for people to walk.
"The community has said that's not what it wants and we have to respect that, but it means having a conversation to say: 'Here are the options of what we can do within a limited financial envelope’," McDonald says. "That’s what we will spend the next few months doing - working with the community to try to find a solution. But where financial challenges exist, we have to be honest. There’s no point trying to ignore them.”
McDonald suggests those who criticise ALEOs are missing the point; that, until Covid, ALEOs made it possible to plug the funding gap. "The question is not: "Are they fit for purpose? " but: "Are local government settlements fit for purpose?" he says. "We are not getting the amount of funding we need for our core statutory services which means there's become a reliance on commercial events to support them."
Asked what he is doing to secure more central government funding for Glasgow, he points out the new national deal between the SNP and the Greens includes a commitment to look at local government finance. "That can't come soon enough," he says.
At the same time, he insists he has been making the case for more funding to the Scottish government both in his non-political role as chair of Glasgow Life and through the Twitter hashtag #StepUpForGlasgow.
Does *he* see a disconnect between saying libraries should be at the heart of the post-Covid recovery and not giving local authorities enough money to fund them?
"There is no argument about the fundamental role of libraries," he says. "But if that's how people see them, then they have to put their money where their mouth is. I haven't seen that happening."
It’s Saturday morning. A small book swap stall has been set up outside the Couper Institute. It’s a good opportunity for those deprived of their library to access new reading material. Children are milling about. Taylor’s sons have brought their own camping chairs.
On the steps sits six-year-old Sebastian Boothroyd. He has swapped a book about a farting fish for Roddy Doyle’s Brilliant. His head is currently buried in its pages.
“It’s about a black dog,” he tells me when I interrupt. Reading is one of Sebastian’s favourite things. “I came here with my school,” he says. “If you brought your card you could borrow three books. I miss the library. I hope it opens again.”
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