Richard Styles: Why do we need libraries?


Kent County Council consulted on the future of the library service in Kent recently, and in short order decided to go ahead as planned. It does beg the question as to why they bothered, as over 2,500 individuals and organisations took the trouble to respond, seemingly, to no purpose. It does democracy and the standing of local government no good, to set up a consultation, set all the questions in a closed fashion and then pointedly, ignore all alternative suggestions.

Seb Reilly’s opinion piece suggests that a cut in hours for libraries is ‘acceptable’,if all libraries lose a few opening hours. Unfortunately, I feel Seb was not fully informed of the situation, which casts an entirely different light on the matter.

Ramsgate, and in particular Newington, is to lose a lot of hours, not just a few. Newington will only have 23 hours opening hours per week (an increase on the original proposal of 15 hours). This is really closing a library by default. Ramsgate and Newington are communities with high deprivation indices, similar to Margate, so accepting these cuts is not really helping deprived communities, far from it.

It gets worse when:

(a) we find out that cutting library funding will make little or no difference to the adult social care funding problem.

(b) that towns like Ramsgate are losing library hours but deprived towns like Edenbridge get more hours. In fact there is a net redistribution of hours from East to West Kent all based on data collected by an organisation based itself, in West Kent.

Finally, (c) if you locate libraries in back streets or in remote locations away from the communities they are meant to serve, you won’t get the footfall. An obvious point, I think. Ramsgate and Newington libraries fall into the latter category.

Seb’s points are well made, but miss the point, which is that a comprehensive and efficient library service is not an inessential, ‘nice to have’, service, but a key part in regenerating the economy of Thanet or any other area, which is probably why Edenbridge has lobbied for more hours.

There are 8m active library users in the UK; in contrast there are only 5.3m regular worshippers in all denominations of the Christian religion in the UK. Now I know once we drill down into what is meant by active or regular, things may look a little different, but if we take this data at face value, according to the current, technocratic, thinking prevalent at Maidstone, we should be pulling down church towers and selling off the assets, because Christianity is just not ‘cost effective’. I don’t think many would agree with that view, but it does illustrate that spreadsheet economics can only go so far.

What about the internet? Yes, it has its place, but life is not a game show, based on a set of quiz questions. Wikipedia can give some answers, but to obtain anything more than a superficial knowledge of a subject, it requires effort and some background reading quite often located only in books, on a given subject to get the full picture.

I know, books! How quaint! How retro!

Well, books are still highly regarded in our halls of learning and the physical book market actually grew by 8%, last year; whereas the digital market share fell from its peak of 51% in market share in 2013 to 37%  of all book sales, last year.

Book production varies but in 2013 around 184,000 books of all kinds were produced in the UK, the 5th largest in the world.

The UK publishing industry is a big export trade, producing £3.4Bn in earnings which was a healthy 8% increase, compared to the previous year. So, while some in Kent may not value books or reading, the world does not agree.

So book reading is not dead, but why have libraries?

You can amass a considerable collection of books at low cost, by trawling the charity shops, but if you want the latest thriller, it can be beyond the finances of many readers on limited incomes. By using the local library they can read their favourite author’s works and experiment by trying new authors for greater reading pleasure.

For those with a Gradgrind attitude to library provision, it should be recalled that what we now refer to as authors of classic works, were once considered popular fiction writers.

Seb is correct when he describes current library services as providing fewer books, but a greater provision of internet access. If we want people to engage with state run services, those on low incomes need to be able to access those services, and libraries facilitate access. They are also places to carry out research and complete homework assignments, especially if you live in cramped or crowded accommodation and many do.

I could also describe libraries as community hubs, adult education centres, information points, sources of expensive text books etc, etc. They can be many things, but they need investment and support.

We all know about the phrase ‘Give someone a fish and it will feed them for a day’.It goes on to say ‘Give them a fishing rod and it will feed them for a life time’. It could also go on to say ‘Lend them a library book on fishing and they will catch more fish and maybe feed their community’.

  • Kent County Council says more people (44%) agreed with our plans than disagreed (37%). The main focus of our plans was to safeguard the future of all our 99 libraries, at a time when many other authorities are closing libraries down.

This a personal view as a reader and inveterate library user and should not be taken as indicative of the views of any organisation that I may be connected to.


    • You obviously need to read a book on communism. Your comment shows you have little grasp of the subject.

    • No it doesn’t. It’s hard-line Tory policy. They are not philanthropists but quite the opposite.

  1. I completely agree libaries and their provision and availability are part of our national heritage. They have provided access to books and learning and are particularly important in an impoverished area such as Thanet.

  2. Please note the Labour Kent county councillor group voted against these tories proposals to cut libraries hours, vote Tory for less services

  3. The LP is attempting to tackle antisemitism yet Islamaphobia runs rampant in the Tories, with few commenting.

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