Last week I was at a reception at the Scottish Parliament, organised by SLIC, the Scottish Library and Information Council. Its purpose was to celebrate Scottish libraries, and during the evening the Culture Minister, Christina McKelvie, took the opportunity to announce that Government funding for the Public Library Improvement Fund, which is administered by SLIC, was to remain at the same level as the previous year, at £450,000. Smiles all round at such good news in a time of rising costs and diminished coffers.

During speeches, SLIC’s important work during Covid was praised and the vital place of libraries, whether civic or educational, was trumpeted. There was a sense that for most of us in the jam-packed room, libraries have played a formative role, whether it was just when we were young, or throughout our lives.

At least twice we were informed that “libraries are about more than books”, which caused one or two writers present to wince. It’s not that this statement is untrue. What it suggests, however, is that where books were once the core function of a library, now they are part of a smorgasbord on offer in your local branch, alongside access to computers and printers, collecting a bus pass, or replacing a hearing aid battery.

What was unsettling was the sense that despite us all agreeing how crucial libraries are, and the plaudits for how well SLIC administers the funds it disburses, we were talking about a sector that is immensely vulnerable. Not a word was said about that. Yet only that day Birmingham Council had gone bust. What will happen to its library services, one wonders?

Despite the funding the Scottish Government gives to libraries, on top of its revenue funding to local authorities, more is needed. At least some of us in that gathering are already dismayed at the reduction in the services provided by our local libraries – reduced opening hours, new books available only as e-books, declining or scantily renewed stock, and fewer if any professional librarians. With immense pressure on local government budgets, which are likely only to grow more severe in coming years, I have no confidence that libraries will not be in the front line when it comes to casualties. Local government panjandrums seem to find it inordinately easy to take the salami-slicing machine to this most crucial of services, hoping that nobody will notice or - worse - that they won’t care. Hoping, also, that if there is a fuss it will be quiet and well-mannered, rather than noisy, disruptive and headline-grabbing. After all, the librarian’s favourite word is “Shhh”.

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Whenever refuse collections or bus routes are axed there are videos of rats running riot and passengers with placards angrily demanding the return of their lifeline service. Rightly so. Nor should it be a competition between sanitation or transport or the benefits of universal free access to books. It’s just that, compared to the immediate and tangible impact of other cuts, it is impossible to show the long-term and irreversible damage done by not replenishing bookshelves or cutting library opening hours, or getting rid of professional staff.

We know it has a deleterious impact, but how do you get that message over? There has to be a way, because between 2010 and 2022, 83 libraries closed. That’s one in eight. And, despite a 41% increase in visitors, there was a drop of 29.6% in net funding for library services between 2010-11 and 2019-20. In such times, we urgently need to have a debate about how best to fund such a remarkable commodity, and ensure that local government maintains its legal obligation to provide “adequate library facilities for all persons resident in their area”?

If the bedrock of library provision is not stabilised, it will continue to be eroded to the point where a priceless resource is in serious danger of collapse. New sources of funding, and ways of ring-fencing funding, are badly needed.

A report into school libraries this year by CILIPS, Scotland’s library and information professionals, was damning. Since 2008 budgets for school libraries in Scotland have been declining, including one authority which recently cut all school librarian posts. Two-thirds of school libraries have no library budget. In the report’s view, “Given the stated support of the Scottish Government for school libraries and the important role of reading, this seems to show an extraordinary lack of understanding from the local authorities as to the role of school libraries, or their ability to fund it.”

So much could be written about school libraries it would rival Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The CILIPS report shows wide regional variations in schools with and without libraries, and how well they function. Add this to a recent report by the National Literacy Trust, showing that only 43% of UK children aged 8-18 enjoy reading for pleasure (even fewer among disadvantaged children), and this record low figure suggests we are in the midst of a crisis. Libraries, in a town, a school or a bus, are about many things: inclusion, community, digital access, a safe space. Above all, however, they are about books. Few things have more power to shape and nurture your life than the freedom to read and discover worlds and ideas beyond your own. Of course good readers will do better at school, and thereby improve upward social mobility and attainment. Equally importantly, though, free access to books is a lifelong gift, an unending source of enjoyment, interest and solace.

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At the very least, to help restore our increasingly troubled society, every primary and secondary school should have a library, run by a professional librarian, with its own ring-fenced budget and, in secondaries, opening beyond school hours. As with public libraries, this should not be seen as a luxury but a fundamental requirement.

To see the difference a good school library can make, here’s the head teacher of Elgin Academy, Kyle Scott, quoted in the CILIPS report: “Our school library is the heartbeat of our school and is core to the ethos we create. The work the library does impacts on all our pupils in terms of well-being but also in terms of supporting our raising attainment agenda. I cannot speak highly enough of the library and advocate the impact this has across our whole school.” Need anything more be said?