Private libraries have good story to sell

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In Newcastle, authors are staging a “take over” of 10 earmarked for closure; in Blackpool, readers are spending the evening celebrating romantic heroes from Mr Darcy to Mr Grey; and Plymouth library is offering classes in tracing your family history. The events, all being held on Saturday to mark National Libraries Day, underline the importance of public libraries to communities throughout the UK As local authorities slash services to cope with spending cuts, public libraries are vulnerable: 212 closed last year, and half of all local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are looking at alternative ways to run their libraries, according to the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals. In many places, protesters have fought back.

Friern Barnet library in London was occupied for months by squatters who refilled its emptied shelves with books. This week, Barnet council granted volunteers a temporary licence. But amid the furore, it has gone largely unnoticed that some of the UK’s most venerable private libraries – havens of books, conversation and cultural events with histories stretching back centuries – are enjoying an upturn in their fortunes. Nottingham’s Bromley House Library, founded in 1816, plans to expand after reaching its highest ever membership level. It boasts almost 1,200 members who pay a subscription of £80 a year. Founded in 1841, the world’s biggest independent lending library, The London Library, reports that recruitment of members, who pay £460 a year, is running at its highest level for five years.

“We have something that really appeals to people; people want to join our libraries,” says Geoff Forster, Leeds Library-based chairman of the 32-member Association of Independent Libraries. “There’s a message for the local authorities that traditional libraries are still desired by people.” Newcastle city council has provoked outrage by proposing to scrap funding to arts organisations and to close 10 of its 18 public libraries. Yet the city’s private “Lit and Phil” library – the Literary and Philosophical Society, which this week celebrated the 220th anniversary of its founding in 1793 – is enjoying its highest membership levels since 1952. Housed in a neo-Classical, Grade Two star listed city centre building, the largest independent library outside London is a blend of imposing Georgian and Victorian features, providing visitors with a sense of being almost embraced by books, which line every inch of wall and shelf space.

The Lit and Phil’s history is stunning. The first public building in the world to be lit by electric light, this is a place where locally-based scientists and entrepreneurs of global influence – including Robert Stephenson – were all presidents. Visiting lecturers have included Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and John Betjeman. More than 2,000 members pay £100 a year for the privilege of working in silence in a warren of rooms or sitting in the main library at a large oval table to chat convivially about anything from Newcastle United to nuclear physics.

“It’s the atmosphere of the place, the companionship, you get intelligent discussion,” says George Clements, a retired local government officer, explaining his frequent visits. One reason for the rising popularity of private libraries is their extensive events programmes. The Lit and Phil offers lectures, concerts, poetry readings, jazz sessions and drama to which non-members are welcome. “People won’t join unless they’ve been in,” points out Kay Easson, the librarian. Clearly, they also need people who can afford membership fees. Cilip warns: “It is a dangerous route to take if access to knowledge and discovery of reading is dependent on the ability to pay.”

But there is one other vital factor in private libraries’ success, their focus on books. That means not only recent publications but big, eclectic and sometimes eccentric collections, all accessible and readily available. “A lot of public libraries have made books less visible and filled the room with computers,” says Paul Gailiunas, the Lit and Phil’s chairman. “In many ways the public sector have painted themselves into a corner.”

Outraged at the prospect of seeing local libraries close, people all over the country are volunteering to keep their local facilities going. By April this year, 260 libraries will be community-managed says the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the body which represents library staff. Its forecasts make grim reading. This year, it expects more than 1,100 library staff will be lost, 1,720 opening hours a week cut and £22.5m in revenue spending slashed. Volunteering, which combines the government’s visions of Localism and the Big Society with the need for greater public sector efficiency, might seem to be the solution. However, the Women’s Institute, which is running a Love Your Libraries campaign, is warning that library volunteers risk being used as “sticking plaster”. Ruth Bond, chair of the WI, says: “This research has confirmed our fears that all too often, volunteers are stepping in to pick up the pieces without adequate support.”

The WI warns that community managed libraries may be unsustainable, contributing to the erosion of the public library service by default. Phil Bradley, president of Cilip, says volunteers are capable of running book swaps and keeping the doors open but cannot equal a professional librarian’s expertise.“It’s the hollowing out of the library service,” he warns. Maureen Ivens, co-ordinator of the successful Save Friern Barnet Library campaign observes; “The volunteer model can never be a substitute for a properly funded public service except in a few, very wealthy locations. Any efficient developed country should be able to run an excellent library service.”

At Upper Norwood library in south London, campaigners have formed a trust and secured reduced council funding to support professional staffing. Robbie Gibson, chairman of the local campaign, says: “There’s a lot more to it than volunteers just doling out some books.” THE FIGURES 212: Number of libraries that closed last year 1/2: Local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland looking at alternative ways to run libraries 1,100: Number of library staff that Cilip forecasts will be lost this year 1,720: Number of library opening hours a week that Cilip expects to be cut £22.5m: Revenue spending expected to be slashed 260: Number of libraries that will be community managed, according to Cilip

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