LIBRARIES are vital to the future of rural communities, and more churches should be adapted to offer library services, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has urged.
Speaking in a House of Lords debate on the critical decline in libraries and bookshops, he said that there “was real scope for adapting local churches to provide some of the vital services that libraries can bring”. And he cited St Peter’s, Peterchurch, in Hereford, which was now offering a children’s centre, coffee shop, and library, as an example of how a church could step in to prevent vital community services being lost.
“Our churches are buildings for the whole community, not just the faithful. In some cases, they are the last public building remaining open in a small rural community, and form a tangible link with the past as a source of local identity,” he said.
The debate in the Lords on the future of libraries and bookshops was called by Lord John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine, who was unable to read and write until taught in prison.
Lord Bird said that more than 500 libraries had closed since 2010, and 9000 librarians had lost their jobs. He warned that any savings gained by cutting libraries would shift costs into disorder, crime, and poorer education outcomes.
“So, if you wish to cut libraries please do so — but do it on the basis that you build more prisons and more hostels for homeless people and put higher walls around your house.
“Libraries are essential. . . I recommend that Her Majesty’s Government supply some emergency-relief money to stop local authorities doing this dastardly deed, this process of philistining our communities,” he said.
Bookshops were suffering a similar fate, he said. As many as 450 had been lost in the past six years.
“A hundred years ago, most of the people I know who would work in and run bookshops would probably have been working in the Church or something like that. I do not want to exaggerate, but there is something sacred and spiritual about working a bookshop.”
The Labour peer Baroness Rebuck, publisher and chair of Penguin Random House, echoed his passion. She said: “Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster. We have a stark choice. If we lose our celebrated bookshops and libraries, we will never improve our nation’s literacy.”
Speaking for the Government on libraries, Lord Ashton said: “I can confirm that the Government does indeed recognise the value of libraries in providing for communities.”
He said that the Government was currently investigating library closures in four areas — Harrow, Southampton, Lambeth, and Lancashire. He said that complaints were assessed on an individual basis, but added: “If there is serious doubt a library service fails to offer a comprehensive local service, this Government will not hesitate to order an enquiry.”