North Yorkshire's libraries under threat
A local library run by librarians? For many in North Yorkshire, that will be a thing of the past. John Harris travels from the coast to the dales to ask communities how they'll cope
Tags: john harris john domokos westminster politics conservatives libraries books cuts big society
Added: 2 years ago
[scene opens in Scarborough (North Yorkshire), with reporter John Harris walking through town while speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN HARRIS: We're starting this trip in Scarborough, on the eastern edge of North Yorkshire. Now, from the coast, across the moores, to the Yorkshire dales, there are forty two libraries in North Yorkshire. But the local councilors have put a big question mark over twenty four of them. They're either gonna close, or may be run not by librarians, but volunteers. Now, depending on who you talk to, this either marks a big moment in the birth of the so-called "big society," or a dire threat to one of the most treasured parts of our national life.
[cut to John driving in his car (still speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN HARRIS: A good fifteen-minute drive from Scarborough is Eastfield, where there's one of four libraries in the Scarborough area which is under threat. Eastfield is one of the most deprived areas in North Yorkshire.
[cut to John walking through the stacks in a public library]
JOHN HARRIS: Here's an example of why libraries are brilliant places ...
[he picks up a book and holds it up to the camera]
JOHN HARRIS: Here we are, fifteen minutes from Scarborough, and the local library has a copy of "Dylan's Visions of Sin." Which is a really forensic, passionate work of scholarship about Bob Dylan.
[he puts the book down]
JOHN HARRIS: That reflects my own experience of using libraries. The reason I'm a journalist is partly because I used to go to my local library every week, get out a different music book, and that's how I became aware you could earn a living by writing about music.
[cut to various shots of patrons using the library]
JOHN HARRIS: [in voice over] Since then, times may have changes, but looking around Eastfield's Community Resource Centre, it's obvious that this place has changed with them, and done everything politicians have asked of it.
[cut to a female patron being interviewed by Harris]
PATRON 1: It's so much more than coming in to get a book ... I've just got to look at that sign behind ya, "Welcome to Your Community Resource Centre." It doesn't say "Welcome to Your Library."
[cut to another female patron being interviewed]
PATRON 2: Come in for books, we have meetings in the meeting room here ... Only one in four people in Eastfield actually have internet in their homes, so to actually access internet and all the services are online, you have to come to the library and use that.
[cut to a male patron being interviewed]
PATRON 3: We're in the top ten deprived areas, and if you take this away, you're taking education away from the young people, which is gonna make it worse. I mean, y'know, they can't learn everything in school. They need references, they need computers. Y'know, we're just gonna get worse ... The estate will just die.
JOHN HARRIS: If it turns out that the only way of saving this place is to bring volunteers in to run it, would any of you step forward?
PATRON 1: I would step forward to volunteer, but not step forward to ... start the process off, because I think that would just be so difficult to do. But I would volunteer. Y'know, cleaning.
[cut to another male patron being interviewed]
PATRON 4: If it meant the fact that the library staff was dismissed, and I was asked to volunteer, then the answer's "no," because I won't take a paid job off somebody ...
[cut to John outside of the library, holding up a piece of paper to the camera]
JOHN HARRIS: This is the consultation form that the council's issued about the local library service. It says things like ... "Do you strongly agree, agree, neither agree of disagree, disagree, or disagree strongly with such statements as 'I understand why the library needs to make changes to the library service,' 'I would be interested in accessing a community-run library,' 'The proposed changes will not affect me or my organization.'"
[he stops reading and points to something on the paper]
JOHN HARRIS: There's a big box here, it says ... "What ideas do you have for other ways we could save two-point-three million in library and community services?"
[cut to John's car driving down the road]
JOHN HARRIS: [in voice over] From Scarborough, we head across the snowy moores to talk to the man responsible for North Yorkshire's libraries ...
[cut to Derek Laws ("Head of Adult Services, North Yorks Council") being interviewed by Harris]
DEREK LAWS: The council's got a massive challenge. It would be naive to assume that taking out the numbers that ... the figures that they are over this period, particularly with it being front-loaded, it would be naive to think that that wasn't going to affect front-line services, because it will.
[cut back to the library, as the camera focuses on a sign reading "Have your say on the future of North Yorkshire's libraries"]
DEREK LAWS: [in voice over] Over the past three or four years, I've been taking out efficiency savings year on year, to the tune of at least three percent a year. And I've been taking back-office staff out, I've been taking layers of management out. I've restructured the department to death!
[cut back to Derek being interviewed]
DEREK LAWS: The settlement's been front-loaded by the ... I mean, we've gotta find more in the first couple of years than we would in, y'know, it's not evenly spread across the four--
JOHN HARRIS: You can't save two million from the library's budget over four years?
DEREK LAWS: Yeah, and two million ... Uh, two-point-one million from a budget of seven-point-five, so it's getting on for a third of the budget, okay? So now, we're out to consultation, where we're saying to communities, "If you want to save your library with us--"
DEREK LAWS: Uh, and obviously we all try and find ways ... Uh, it's different in each place, simply because population sizes are different. Um, the, um, commitments or the motivation of local communities to sort of get involved--
JOHN HARRIS: The idea that your local library will be run by librarians, unfortunately, isn't affordable in many cases now ...
DEREK LAWS: No, it's not. No, no ... It will be run in the sense of professional support and training for those volunteers that will be taking that on.
JOHN HARRIS: Yeah.
DEREK LAWS: And of course, there will always be an infrastructure ... I mean, we are maintaining, obviously, a big library presence by having a team that will remain, an-and those--
JOHN HARRIS: Can people get to them, though?
DEREK LAWS: Yes--
JOHN HARRIS: Because obviously, public transport subsidies are being cut at the same time.
DEREK LAWS: Eighty percent of the use of our libraries are in those eighteen.
JOHN HARRIS: But if the, if the remaining twenty percent live in the back or beyond--
DEREK LAWS: The other, the other twenty--
JOHN HARRIS: Can they get to your Pickerings and your Scarboroughs and your North Alectowns to use them?
DEREK LAWS: Well, that's gonna be more challenging ...
[cut to John driving in his car]
JOHN HARRIS: [in voice over] To get a sense of those challenges, we headed to the town of Bedale, in one of the smaller rural libraries under the threat.
[cut to two patrons being interviewwed by Harris]
PATRON 5: My husband and I were so upset at the thought that we might lose our library that we thought, if nothing else, we can start a petition.
[she holds up a notepad full of signatures]
PATRON 5: They're all from within a good ten-mile radius, travelling to Bedale to the library.
JOHN HARRIS: If this library did close, perish the thought, where would the nearest library be?
PATRON 6: North Eleton ...
PATRON 5: North Eleton--
JOHN HARRIS: Which is how far from here?
PATRON 6: Ten miles ...
PATRON 5: Into, into the eight miles further on, isn't it?
JOHN HARRIS: So if you're living in one of these outlying areas, you could be looking at ... what? A twenty-mile trip to get to the library?
PATRON 5: A twenty-mile trip, easily.
PATRON 6: Actually forty--
JOHN HARRIS: Forty miles?
PATRON 6: Forty mile, round trip.
[cut to a young mother with her child at the front desk, as an older female librarian checks out some books for them]
PATRON 7: I mean, it's that personal ... "Oh, I think you'd like this one, I've just put it aside for you!" And I think it's brilliant.
JOHN HARRIS: Well, why do we need librarians here? See, the idea is to make it that volunteers would run it.
PATRON 7: Oh, you can't just have ... But you do need people that know about books.
[cut to another female patron being interviewed]
JOHN HARRIS: If it was run by volunteers, which is one thing people are talking about, what do you think about that idea?
PATRON 8: Well, I'd volunteer.
JOHN HARRIS: You would?
PATRON 8: Yeah. I-I love books, and I'd be quite happily working in a library anyway, so ... and I wouldn't be surprised if there would be enough people in the area that would do that.
[cut back to Derek being interviewed]
DEREK LAWS: What we've found is that, if communities are faced with a real loss of a service that they've been used to, we've been surprised as to how many people have come forward.
JOHN HARRIS: Is this a permanent or a temporary change? In other words, when the financial situation improves, might librarians re-enter the picture in volunteer-run libraries?
DEREK LAWS: I just think the nature of local government, and the shape of local government was so different in four or five years time. Y'know, who knows how this will be? I think what will be absolutely clear is that it will concentrate county councils' and other councils' attention on the real priorities, and what it is that people are saying they want to spend their council tax money on.
[cut to John driving in his car]
JOHN HARRIS: [in voice over] Tumultuous days in North Yorkshire, and we're told by the council that a flavor of how rural libraries might work in the future can be found in the village of Hudswell, where people have come together to buy out the local pub and expand what it offers. A story held up as an example of the "big society" by the Tory libraries minister Ed Vaizey.
[cut to John entering the "George and Dragon" pub, where he interviews a male bar patron]
BAR PATRON 1: We thought it's no use just re-opening a pub. They're not sustainable nowadays, it had to be a community pub which involved all aspects of the community, and this is one part of it.
[he points to a single bookshelf in the back of the pub (with signs reading "Hudswell Village Library" and "Library Outlet" attached via tape), then cut to John interviewing a female bar patron]
JOHN HARRIS: These books are supplied to you by ... ?
BAR PATRON 2: By the county library service.
JOHN HARRIS: Right, okay.
BAR PATRON 2: Who've been extremely helpful, actually. A volunteer from the village looks after the shelves to make sure that things are kept tidy and everything.
[cut back to John and the first bar patron in front of the bookshelf]
JOHN HARRIS: You must have heard this expression ... "This is a living breathing example of the big society!"
[the patron laughs]
BAR PATRON 1: William Hague said that when he opened it.
BAR PATRON 1: Uh, it's one view, and others think it's local socialism ... You pick and choose whichever term you want to use.
JOHN HARRIS: Which side of the fence do you fall?
BAR PATRON 1: Ah, towards the local socialism.
JOHN HARRIS: Right, okay.
[cut to John sitting at a table in the pub, speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN HARRIS: Local people here have rescued the community pub, and opened a shop, and in doing so they've made up for a failure of the market. But it was suggested that we come here because it might say something about the "big society" and the idea of using volunteering to replace services traditionally provided by the state.
[he turns and points at the bookshelf behind him]
JOHN HARRIS: Now, those five shelves of books there are great, but they're really not much of a replacement for a traditional library.
[cut to a shot of the bar (including a sign reading "Politics and beer don't mix!"), as the lights are turned off]
JOHN HARRIS: [in voice over] The state has never really run pubs, apart from in wartime, I think. But there's probably a reason why libraries have always been in the public sector.
[cut to John walking outside at nighttime, speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN HARRIS: When I was growing up, it was taken for granted that libraries were a universal service. Now, after years of being chipped away, they're about to take a really sharp drop. It's great that in a place like Hudswell, people get together to sorta spread books around the community, and in other places in North Yorkshire, people will get together and step forward as volunteers to keep libraries open. But there's no question that in some places that did have libraries, they're not gonna have them anymore, and that is a tragedy.
Librarians: 'We do so much more than shelve books and say shhh'
The Tories clearly don't know how much libraries do. Cuts will threaten the very social bonds they claim to want to promote
Tuesday 11 January 2011 20.30 GMT
Fifteen minutes south of Scarborough is Eastfield Community Resource Centre – opened four years ago, to serve one of the area's most disadvantaged communities. In addition to lending out books, what would once have been a mere library has obeyed the modern demand to transform itself into a "hub", and provides what might look to a lot of people like the raw materials of social mobility: internet access, parent and toddler groups, space and resources to help with school homework, meeting rooms and more.
On the day I visit, four staff members are seeing to the needs of a steady stream of people. The shelves bulge with titles that point to horizons well beyond these parts: David Remnick's Obama biography, The Bridge; a rich work of pop-cultural scholarship entitled Dylan's Visions Of Sin; and a coffee-table study of Matisse. "You can't learn everything at school," one local tells me; this place surely offers instant proof.
But for how much longer? Thanks chiefly to the clunking fist of Eric Pickles, Tory-run North Yorkshire county council must save £2.1m from a libraries budget of £7.5m by 2015. Thus, of 42 libraries, only 18 now have a guaranteed future: the remaining 24 – including Eastfield – will either close or somehow be handed to volunteers. North Yorkshire's fleet of mobile libraries will also be hacked down, from 10 to two.
After our initial call for on-the-ground intelligence, I came here thanks to online posts from a couple of Yorkshire-resident regulars on Comment is free, one of whom was adjusting to the possibility of a nearby library – the closest thing to a local community centre, they said – being shut for good. The thread they posted on, of course, reflected a nationwide story, now familiar to millions of us. In Somerset, 24 out of 40 libraries may soon close. In Doncaster, 13 of the 26 are under threat. The same applies to 20 out of 43 libraries in Oxfordshire, 7 of the 12 in Conwy, 23 of the 32 in Cornwall, and 9 of the 11 on the Isle of Wight. The noise of protest grows greater by the day: do not be surprised if pockets of local dissent soon fuse together, and cause no end of problems for both national and local government.
The threat to hundreds of libraries is being recast as an opportunity to bring in volunteers, and finally provide concrete examples of how the "big society" may work in practice – and, though any library is better than none at all, you have to wonder about what will transpire. How volunteers will convincingly step into the space left by trained librarians, or maintain six-day-a-week opening, remains unclear (witness a recent headline from the Swindon Advertiser: "Library hours cut due to lack of volunteers"). Moreover, when you spend time in a facility as ambitious as the one in Eastfield, one thought becomes inescapable: there is simply no way that unpaid staff could run it satisfactorily.
Still, this is the vision of the future to which Ed Vaizey, the minister who sees to libraries, seems enthusiastically pledged, with local stories to assist his case. "There are all sorts of ways of configuring the big society," he said in July last year. "The George and Dragon pub in North Yorkshire is now delivering a library service and a pint to the community in Hudswell. That sounds like a good partnership to me."
That village has a population of 250, and sits on the north-eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales, in William Hague's constituency, Richmond. Hague was there for the ceremonial opening of what so impressed Vaizey, and hailed it as "an example of the big society at work". The reality is rather more complicated. Yes, the people of the village clubbed together to raise £220,000 to buy the closed local pub and re-open it, and they then combined it with a shop, and a limited book-lending service. But in doing so, they were largely plugging a hole left by the market rather than the state, and the locals I meet are keener to talk about "local socialism" than the big society.
As I also discover when I call in, the idea that their very limited library "service" – a single shelving unit, with 60-odd books supplied by the council – is being held up as a model that might replace orthodox libraries is greeted with something approaching horror.
Underlying that response is something I hear time and again in Yorkshire, which points up gaping cracks in the big society dream: that, if local libraries are pushed so far down the list of local priorities, too many will fail to fulfil vital responsibilities, and thus threaten the very social bonds the Tories claim to want to promote.
That point was underlined by a post from a librarian who responded to our initial appeal for information, and it's worth quoting at length: "We do so much more than issue books, shelve and say, 'Shhh' to people," he wrote. "We cater to our public from birth to death. We go out to antenatal and postnatal groups to sign up the youngest in our population, thus trying to help those families who do not read ... We offer free sessions to under-fives, know all about school curriculums and how best to work with schools.
"We know our looked-after children, our troubled teens, our users who suffer from mental health issues ... We know how to help with homework, teach internet skills to all ages, help unskilled people find jobs ... We embraced using volunteers, but can they run our libraries without us? No. And in my authority they are losing about 60% of librarians."