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Councils are on borrowed time if they close libraries

The other week my wife borrowed an owl from the library.

I suppose I should make it clear that the library service has not diversified from its original purpose quite to the point where strigine lending is now seen as a core activity though – come to think of it, JK Rowling’s readers might be quite keen on the idea.

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This owl is a thing that measures how much electricity your household’s using, with a display showing the pennies per minute.

It’s quite interesting to discover that computers and televisions on standby, contrary to the propaganda of the environmental lobby, use practically no electricity at all, but that switching on the oven doubles the overall cost. And that you need a second mortgage to use the iron. But instructive though it was, I can’t quite see why it is the library’s business to lend out such a gadget.

Nor do I have much sympathy with those, such as Gloria de Piero, Labour’s shadow culture minister, whose defence of libraries appears to be based on the notion that they are a handy drop-in centre for mothers with toddlers, pensioners and those who don’t have the internet at home. There is a value and a social benefit in that, of course, but it is hardly the basis of the library system.

And the regrettably large number of libraries which devote chunks of their budget to building up collections of Britney Spears CDs or lending DVDs of The Glimmer Man (which could actually be borrowed more cheaply from commercial competitors) have done their cause no favours.

But for all that, library funding is a rare example of public spending that is not only defensible but actively desirable.

Despite the considerable improvements which, it is only fair to acknowledge, have been made in the administration of libraries during the past 10 years, there is still a great deal which could be done to reform the system.

Too little of the overall budget is spent on books, and it is spent inefficiently; too many people are employed in management; operating costs are absurdly inflated; some libraries simply do not provide the service they should.

The public library sector in the UK costs more than the entire bookselling and publishing industries combined.

The solutions to these failings are not especially tricky to identify, but the one thing they need not involve is the closure of a single library. Yet that is what several councils, including Dumfries, Argyll and Bute and North Ayrshire, would clearly like to do.

The blame for this will, as usual, be attributed to the wicked cuts of the Coalition government. As usual, that will be wrong.

Responsibility for any library closures lies solely with local councils, as indeed, do most of the current failings of the library service which I listed a moment ago.

Library counter staff are, for the most part, very good at their very badly paid jobs. Councils, by contrast, are very bad at understanding the purpose and value of libraries, and quite staggeringly inept at managing their budgets.

The people of Dumfries, for example, where seven libraries are facing the axe, might ask their council whether savings might not be made more easily by employing fewer than 52 senior managers, or whether libraries offer rather better value than the £130,000 salary at which the post of its chief executive was last advertised. It is good to report that Edinburgh, the first Unesco City of Literature, has just backed down over plans to restrict school librarians’ working hours to term-time, but it is an alarming indication of the council’s priorities.

It will not wash to blame central government cuts when it is clear the council demonstrates a level of financial incompetence not seen since the Weimar republic – if you begin typing “Edinburgh tram” into Google, it automatically suggests adding the word “fiasco”.

It is local councillors who need to be held to account. The choice is not, as they are anxious to present it, between funding libraries and funding, for example, care homes, but between libraries and the remarkably wasteful management, accommodation and structures of local authorities. Culture minister Ed Vaizey has little opportunity to intervene over libraries until a closure is actually announced, and unless he is advised to do so by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. But he has already gone on record actually encouraging people to protest against library closures and to make it a priority when electing local councillors – who have, after all, a statutory duty to provide a public library service.

Fortunately, large numbers of people, as the weekend’s well-mannered protests showed, are doing just that. Use of libraries has actually increased over the past decade – there were 42 million loans from British libraries in the last year for which figures are available, and Scotland’s 541 libraries and 83 mobile libraries had some 30 million visits in 2009. But many of the recommendations for improvements which were suggested to councils a decade ago have yet to be put in place: there are still six administrative stages, each of them expensive, in getting a book from the publisher to the shelf.

Councils have done practically nothing to take advantage of the savings which their purchasing power could bring (10 years ago it was estimated that that alone would free more than £12 million for buying books), nor to learn from the streamlining in ordering, warehousing and delivery which have been introduced by booksellers. No local authority should really need more than a couple of employees to oversee the management of its libraries (though one of them ought to be an accountant); the money would be better spent on librarians, so that libraries can open longer hours.

One of the most cheering sights of the protests in Egypt was the chain of people assembled to protect the library at Alexandria, a place which is the perfect reminder of what a library means to a civilization. If your library is threatened with closure, demand to know exactly what your local councillors are spending your money on instead.

You can probably work out where you can look up their names.

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