Leader: Use it or lose it – how to keep our libraries open

The children's section at Piershill Library in Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean
The children's section at Piershill Library in Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Who would be a councillor in Scotland in 2019?

As local authorities prepare to finalise their budgets the harsh reality is that town halls have become places where cuts are on the daily menu, and there are no longer any easy targets.

How do you decide between cutting the education budget, social care or closing a sports centre?

What has become clear over the past decade is that libraries have been regarded as a soft touch.

According to research by Labour, cultural services have been hit with £90 million of cuts in recent years, with libraries among the services most affected.

In 2017, 30 libraries closed in Scotland, up from 15 the previous year, while a number of others have had staffing, budgets and opening hours reduced.

There has been a £22m reduction in spending for libraries over the past six years. That equates to a 17.9 per cent cut – higher than the overall 13.9 per cent reduction across cultural services.

It is now clear that libraries are facing their greatest ever threat with just 558 left across Scotland.

The main argument for wielding the axe is that libraries are outdated. The internet and the e-book mean they are no longer required. Others posit that libraries are just too middle class and cannot be afforded when essential services for the most needy are required.

But libraries are so much more than places to borrow books.

They are the cornerstone of many communities and are part of the fabric of our society; a place to meet, to connect with others; a place of education and nourishment; a hub at a time when many other lifeline resources – post offices, banks – are closing.

Surveys have found huge support for keeping libraries open, typically in excess of 80 per cent of people say they are important. And, of course, libraries are not short of celebrity support with authors such as Stephen Fry, Julia Donaldson, Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby and Ali Smith all speaking out in support of continued investment. Donaldson said recently: “Libraries produce more literate kids, which is vital for the future of society. When half the prison population is illiterate it doesn’t make sense to be destroying the best literary resource we have.”

Library usage has – on some measures – been increasing. But it will take the public to really fight this if more centres are not to close. This means looking at ways to share spaces, reduce cost and increase usage. Petitions, protests and crowdfunding.

If a public service matters this much then we all must get together and show it.

When was the last time you visited the library? Perhaps it’s time to get down there, show your support and find out what’s 
on offer.