Whenever a council is called upon to make ‘cuts’, its bean-counters head for the soft underbelly, which usually means public libraries. I am no lawyer, but to remove a public library service completely would seem to violate the responsibility placed on local authorities under the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964 to provide such a service. If the government wishes to decide that public libraries serve no useful purpose – an interesting contention to say the least – then it should at least have the decency to say so; and if it is happy for local authorities that run libraries to close them in contradiction of their statutory duties, it should say that too.
Libraries are not always closed; some save money by sacking staff and opening for shorter hours. Either way, the public is disobliged. Some people make the journey to a library simply to read newspapers free of charge or to borrow pulp fiction, but for others the library is an invaluable means of feeding minds left undernourished by formal education or sating their intellectual curiosity when their appetite for knowledge exceeds their disposable income to spend on books. For bright children in state schools the public library will often supplement whatever is on offer at school. In some cases what they learn from the books they borrow will give them the rounded understanding of life that will allow them better to compete with their more privileged contemporaries from public schools when the fight starts for places at good universities.
The growth of the public library movement started with another act of Parliament in 1850, when schools were far from universal and the gospel of Samuel Smiles was driving working men and women to evening study. Before then, the cash-strapped Thomas Carlyle had been instrumental in founding the London Library