Do we need a Wales Libraries Act?

Adam Johannes argues Welsh Government has not shielded libraries from austerity and urges a Wales Libraries Act to stop future budget cuts

Adam Johannes argues Welsh Government has not shielded libraries from austerity and urges a Wales Libraries Act to stop future budget cuts

In 1964, the UK Parliament passed a historic law, The Public Libraries and Museums Act. The law would make it a statutory duty for all councils in England and Wales ‘to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons’. The Minister of the Arts would have a duty to monitor local authorities to ensure that library standards and improvements were maintained.

There was only one issue. Nowhere would the words comprehensive and efficient be clearly defined in the legislation. In that age it might be imagined that everyone knew what a public library was. Since 2010, the Conservative Government in England has refused to enforce the act, or clearly define what kind of library services should be provided by councils. This effectively means providing a library service is not a ‘statutory duty’.

Across the UK over the last dozen years an estimated 1,000 libraries have closed, over a quarter of library staff have lost their jobs and millions fewer books are in circulation, an unprecedented historic assault on our national library service.

In some places, councils replaced library staff with volunteers, or handed them over to community groups, degrading the quality of library services. In other places, library services were reduced to make way for other council services shoved into library buildings. Even the word ‘library’ is being phased out in some places to eradicate the ideal of the Public Library. Where I live our local councillors talk about ‘hubs’.

Post-2010 a third of libraries in Wales have either closed or been handed over by councils to others.

A series of stark statistics in the media would reveal the scale of devastation of library services with Welsh Government and councils making a mockery of the idea that a ‘comprehensive’ and ‘efficient’ library services are a legal statutory duty in Wales.

In 2014, RCT Council closed thirteen libraries, half its library service. One year later, library visitors were down 26%. Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend Councils would outsource their libraries to ‘charitable trusts’.

By 2017, BBC Wales research found ten percent of libraries in Wales were run solely by volunteers with no trained and professional library staff at all. Between 2012-18 the use of unpaid volunteers would increase thirteen-fold from less than 100 to 1,288. One-in-five full-time paid library staff across Wales would lose their jobs.

The research further found 11 libraries were open less than 10 hours a week, with one – Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire only opened for four hours a week – and run by unpaid volunteers.

Often when councils closed or cut libraries, residents tried to maintain library services themselves. In Carmarthenshire, two libraries closed in 2012 after attempts to run them with volunteers failed. A report in the Llanelli Star at the time quoted a council spokesperson who ‘pointed out that Tumble Library was being run by a community organisation and not the council at the time it closed, while community organisations in Trimsaran had decided not to take over the running of that facility.’ In other words, the council attempted to absolve themselves of blame for the closures by blaming the local communities!

Seven years ago, the library I regularly use, Cardiff Central Library, would lose its top floor. I was told at the time by a local organiser for UNISON – the trade union representing library workers – that the library was also losing a quarter of its paid staff. A few months later, the union would note hundreds of books being removed and another floor being lost to the library to make way for a busy housing and council tax advice centre moving in.  My library would now be called a ‘hub’, a new buzzword for moving other council services into library buildings. While in theory, a library sharing a building with other activities, from council services to art and education, might be a good thing, in practice, too often when library buildings are changed to host additional services, the library service must be cut back to create space for them.

In 2019, the mass job cuts of trained professional library staff inflicted by councils across Wales would lead to tragedy when a librarian in his fifties hung himself after being humiliatingly forced by Cardiff Council to re-apply for the job he had done most of his life and failing to get it.

Could it have been different? In Finland, where the government increased investment in public libraries during the same period, half of all citizens now visit a library once a month. The historic mission of libraries as providers of reading materials is maintained, but in many Finnish libraries one might also borrow power tools, musical instruments, sewing machines, games and more. Many act as multimedia public living rooms, local community centres, and cultural hubs, comfortable places where people can come to be around people, make connections and enjoy time out of the house.

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Since devolution, the Welsh Government has had responsibility to oversee our nation’s library service. Post-2010 a third of libraries in Wales have either closed or  been handed over by councils to others. In the Welsh Public Library Standards criteria, the Welsh Government carefully avoids a strict definition of a proper public library service as being publicly-run and funded with paid professionally trained library staff  to green-light council cuts.

Tragically both Labour and Plaid Cymru-led councils have closed public libraries, or handed them over to self-appointed community groups and unpaid volunteers, acting as local administrators of Tory austerity. Sometimes, in the face of local opposition, they have gone along with neoliberal ideological attacks on the principle of a comprehensive and efficient library service to justify these cuts.

Three centuries ago, Wales became a literary nation. It would be one man who helped make Wales one of the most literate countries in Europe. It would be one man who would teach half of Wales how to read. Before 20th century Brazilian educator Paulo Freire with his left wing bestseller on literacy education, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, there was Griffiths Jones, an 18th century Welsh church minister determined that every Welsh citizen might be able to read the Holy Bible. 

It is time for Welsh Government to legislate a Wales Libraries Act to halt any further damage to our nation’s library service.

Over 200,000 men, women and children would attend the ‘Circulating Schools’ he invented, passing through his three-month schooling programme. The Circulating Schools were so-named because they would be hosted in one place for three months before moving, or circulating, elsewhere to a new one. The possibilities of the written word aroused a hunger for more and the idea of literacy was met with enthusiasm. Griffiths Jones had longed for a spiritual revival, but he also created a cultural revival. 

If we look to our past we can see that times of great national and political crisis like our present can only be overcome with creativity and invention, not surrender and passivity.

While everyone must recognise that the UK government policy of systematically underfunding both devolved and local government to shrink the local state is at the core of our crumbling local services, surely a Labour administration in Wales should go the extra mile in defence of public libraries that could soon become an endangered species?

It is time for Welsh Government to legislate a Wales Libraries Act to halt any further damage to our nation’s library service. The act would make it a duty for councils to provide a publicly run and funded library service with paid trained library staff.

A national strategy could be developed jointly between Welsh Government, local councils, trade unions, cultural, education, youth and community workers, organisations of marginalised groups, authors, publishers, and local communities to make libraries central to Welsh democracy, cultural life and community empowerment. Such a strategy would aim to unleash the creativity and invention that our Welsh people possess to create a national Welsh library service that could act as an ark helping carry us to safe passage in a time of so many global crises bearing down on our lives.

Of course, Welsh Government would resist such a proposal. They do not want to tie the hands of local councils to prevent them from making budget cuts. They do not want to lead a mass campaign to confront Westminster for the money needed to adequately fund local councils. For twelve years they have chosen to manage rather than challenge Tory austerity. In campaigning for a Wales Library Act we must explode this political consensus.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Adam Johannes is Co-convenor of Cardiff People's Assembly, who campaign against austerity, cuts and privatisation.

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