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A Magazine for Sheffield

Libraries: Cultural Vandalism

"That there should one Man die ignorant who had capacity for Knowledge, this I call a tragedy, were it to happen more than twenty times in the minute, as by some computations it does." Thomas Carlyle - Inscribed above the entrance to Highfield Library, London Road, Sheffield.

In what has been described as an act of cultural vandalism, Doncaster Council has announced it is to cease funding for 14 of the borough's 26 public libraries. Sheffield City Council has not revealed the details of its budget, and won't be drawn on plans to close the city's libraries, but with fewer than expected Town Hall redundancies, and an £80m budget gap to fill, something may well have to give. You may ask, "So what if half of the libraries close? I can't remember the last time I got a book out of a public library, and I don't mind hopping on a bus next time I fancy a Dan Brown." it's a fair question, which deserves answering. For starters, the last time you borrowed one was probably when you were very young, and the next will in all likelihood be when you're very old, two demographics not renowned for their ability to travel particularly easily (and stop reading Dan Brown's books, you'll only encourage him). But convenience is not the only reason to get upset over library closures, and the Council know this. Poet Ian McMillan, known as the Bard of Barnsley, and a staunch defender of public libraries, said recently, "Libraries are a vital and irreplaceable part of a cultured and civilised society, and one of the few public places left where you don't have to pay to get in." Every political party who have ever had so much as a sniff of power has wanted to be considered the party of aspiration, the party that enabled people to make something better of themselves, and that's something libraries do really well. Not only that, but these days they're not just big rooms full of books - they're full blown community centres, giving some of the most isolated in society a place to make connections and build friendships. Odd that a government so obsessed with building links in society would allow libraries to be anywhere near anyone's list of things to cut. The tin-foil-hat approach to this conundrum is to suggest that the government are fine with library closures, because the more ignorant the populace, the more they can get away with. Indeed, one of the original objections to the 1850 Public Libraries and Museums act was a fear that libraries would become working class "lecture halls...which would give rise to an unhealthy agitation". Around late January, word reached me that a children's creative writing workshop planned for Upperthorpe Library to be led by McMillan had been kiboshed by the council for fear that it might get 'political'. Library Workers for a Brighter Future, a group set up to celebrate libraries and oppose funding cuts, was in the process of organising the event when the council refused them permission to hold it in a public library. The council later clarified that it would have been 'inappropriate' to hold such an event in a library. One wonders where they would consider an appropriate venue for a Save Our Libraries event, and what they were afraid the kids might learn from Ian McMillan. I'm often asked what I would cut instead of libraries. Perhaps I'd rather see fewer bobbies on the beat, an increase in primary school class sizes, or most emotive of all, nurses given the sack. The answer is, of course, none of these. And if that seems a fatuous answer, then you too have drunk George Osborne's "there is no alternative" Kool-Aid. Of course there's an alternative. Last month, President Obama used his second State of the Union speech to outline his plan for America to invest its way out of the downturn. They'll be investing in infrastructure, in technology, and most importantly, investing in education, and so in the future workers, thinkers and innovators of the next generation. The UK, on the other hand, has chosen a different country on which to base its route out of recession. In 2006, George Osborne wrote in The Times, describing that country as "as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking....They have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn." Which country was he speaking of? Ireland. And we all know what happened there. )

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