I’ve been following the overwhelming response to recent announcements of cuts to public library services by local councils. Voices for the Library is a campaigning website that brings together many of the stories, maps the cuts, and offers advice. The reductions in library services are often deeper than the cuts to funding require, and hit areas that need services most, like remote rural areas and deprived areas in large cities.
Naturally, the debate has centred on closures of branch libraries, and books/reading, as these are the most visible cuts and best-known services. Public library services have more to offer though, as librarians and others have been pointing out during the debate. Outreach, community information, internet access for all, IT support, e-books, remote access to reference sources, neutral non-commercial public spaces …
As far as I can tell, the historic collections held by public libraries have not cropped up in the debate. Every city centre library I’ve encountered has some kind of historic collection, as do some branch libraries. Local Studies services must be threatened by the scale of the cuts, though hopefully the popularity of these services, their visibility, their clear local mission and links with archives and museums may help. Other historic collections may be even more at risk. Staff working with Special Collections in public libraries already have much to contend against, made worse by the serious reductions in professional posts in recent years. Staff may not have the relevant expertise, or be supported in seeking it. Other problems include the short-termism driven by changes in council control, the one-size-fits-all marketing approach which means so many local authority websites do not do justice to historic collections, and the risk of benign neglect, or even being sold.
Britain’s public libraries have a wonderful history of enabling anyone to explore information and culture. The furore about the closures suggests that people still value what they have to offer. Historic collections are part of the story too, and offer real measurable benefits. Like historic buildings, they are part of a region’s heritage, what makes it special and distinctive, real, textured, not a clone-town.