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Books of life

11 January 2019

ON Monday, the Government’s long-awaited NHS reforms were announced. New money was promised for mental health, and a greater emphasis is to be placed on preventing illness and promoting good health. It was paradoxical, then, that on the same day the latest figures for the country’s public libraries were published. More than 700 have closed in the past decade, and the budget for salaries has almost halved. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), conducts an annual audit of libraries. Final figures for 2018 are not yet available, but it is estimated that £30 million was lost from libraries’ budgets. To take a few libraries at random: Darlington spent £10.51 per head of population in 2017; it expected to spend £8.81 in 2018. There were rare rises in Durham (£11.05 per head in 2017; £11.25 in 2018) and Devon (£8.35 and £8.44); but Derbyshire projected a fall from £9.71 to £8.97, and Dudley from £14.39 to £10.28. These figures disguise the fact that large cuts have already been made to the budget available for salaries. The library system would be facing total collapse were it not for an estimated 50,000 volunteers around the country, who put in almost 1.8 million hours of help.

The link with mental health is a simple one to make. Books encourage the use of the intellect or the imagination or both. But libraries promote well-being in ways that go far beyond the action of reading; the internet has not made them redundant. They are hubs of community activity and information, not least about health. They are places of refuge and discovery. Most crucially, they encourage and nurture the voracity of young readers. Admittedly, the benefits that they provide have been diminishing over the years, as the cuts have taken effect: shorter opening hours, fewer books, older computers; but their contribution to the well-being of some of the least affluent people in society is incalculable.

Typically, perhaps, the Government has attempted to calculate it. A 2014 DCMS study concluded that, taking various factors into account, regular use of a library equated to a pay rise of £1359 per annum. This was a greater benefit than either of the Department’s other activities: sport contributed the equivalent of £1127 a year; the arts, £1084. Again, the restricted funding of local government is the problem. Supposing the DCMS figures to have some value, the tax revenue from any increase in personal wealth goes to central government. Libraries are funded solely by local govern­ment, and must compete with other services that local councils are statutorily obliged to provide. Thus the revenue circle is broken.

The photos with our feature on Bromley House Library (pages 24-25) are a reminder that libraries’ other function — sadly, lost by so many in the public sector — is to act as a depository for the gathered wisdom of generations of writers. Respect for their work is enhanced when it is well read; but the very act of preservation and display, in peaceful surrounds, is a sign of a healthy society.

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