I was intriqued, like many library observers and campaigners, by the recent comments from Owen Smith, the Labour MP making a challenge for the party leadership against Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Smith has pledged that he will spend more on public libraries and re-open them if closed.
But as always the devil is in the detail so I wrote to Mr Smith asking him to clarify his comments and for his views on the following areas:
Hollowing out of services
Replacement of staff with volunteers
Labour’s lack of policy on libraries
Labour has a very poor record on providing any meaningful answers to previous queries or for having any policy on libraries whatsoever. This latter point wasn’t addressed unfortunately or even acknowledged that one is needed. And while I fully agree that austerity is the driving force behind the cuts there was no recognition that Labour councils could be at the forefront of redesigning library services to mitigate against the cuts instead of emulating Tory practices.
Whether or not the reply below will give campaigners hope that a future Labour government would take the dismantling of the public library network seriously will depend on how it’s interpreted. Obviously, this would also depend on Owen Smith being the leader of that future government.
Please find a reply from Owen below;
Thank you for taking the time to get in touch and for sharing your work on the important issue of libraries.
Public libraries offer each and every one of us a portal to the cumulative wisdom of the ages and the vast expanse of the human imagination. They do so for free and on the simple principle that, by sharing resources and building common institutions, we can all learn more and take greater pleasure than is possible when we act alone. There is nothing more democratic, nothing more socialist and nothing more Labour than a public library.
The vandalism inflicted upon our libraries by this rotten Tory Government is a national scandal. 343 libraries have closed, but that is only the thin end of the wedge. Opening hours and book funds have been slashed across the country. 8,000 jobs have disappeared and our libraries now rely upon volunteers, who do great work and deserve better than being used as a fig leaf for unsustainable cuts. The sad truth is that the libraries that remain are offering a diminished service.
Labour Councils have been put in an impossible position by a Tory Government tying both hands behind their backs. The only way that services will be restored and libraries re-opened is if austerity is ended and local governments are properly funded.
Not just do we need to end austerity, we also need to learn from the past 6 years if we are to safeguard our libraries in the future. Despite their statutory duty under the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”, Tory ministers have not provided any national leadership. I would work with councils to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead and meet local needs.
Under my leadership we would rebuild a democratic, socialist and Labour public library system fit for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.