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The Quiet Disappearance of Britain’s Public Libraries

Public spending cuts have closed almost 800 libraries in the past decade – a fifth of the UK's total. It is a campaign of vandalism against our culture and communities led by the Tory government.

Since the election of the Conservative-led coalition in 2010, cuts to public spending have been vast and widespread, crippling our National Health Service, undermining our social care system, and squeezing local councils into ever-tightening budgets. One often silent victim of this insidious process is our public libraries.

Libraries are a gravely underestimated public good with immense communal value. As well as providing free access to books, libraries have improved outcomes on general health, digital literacy skills, and employment skills, and build community resilience. In 2014-2015, visits to libraries topped attendance to Premier League football games, the cinema, and the country’s top ten tourist attractions combined.

However, in an austerity climate, libraries have been targeted as a disposable resource. Spending on libraries in 2009 was at £1 billion, but by 2019 this had declined by a quarter. The same decade saw 773 libraries close – one fifth of all in the UK. The Conservatives’ assault on public libraries is a deep injustice to all community members, but it’s one that disproportionately affects underprivileged children.

The pandemic, with its required home-schooling, has proven how much low income families rely on public services for educational resources and internet access. The 773 closures will already have had serious consequences for educational outcomes pre-pandemic, and with millions of families pushed into poverty by Covid, those outcomes are only going to get worse.

The Institute of Education found that children who read for pleasure make significantly more progress in maths and English compared to those who do not read – but the ability to participate in reading outside school is limited for those without disposal income to spend on books. This is a key factor in disparities in educational outcomes: research has found that children who own books are six times more likely to read above the expected level for their age, and with over 380,000 children in the UK not owning books, closures of public libraries are reinforcing the divide.

A widening of the cleft between rich and poor is a common feature of Conservative educational policies. Schools in more deprived areas in England have seen the largest cuts to funding per pupil since 2010. With less spent on each child, schools are stretched to provide resources and are essentially pressured to take on the role of the welfare state. In a system which sees the most prestigious schools as a funnel to elite universities and thus secure employment—often in government, business, or both—and where exam success defines wider life outcomes, closures of libraries mean the chance to succeed for poorer children is further suppressed.

A government study in 2018 found that children who are provided free school meals are 23 percent less likely to be in sustained employment by age 27. Record numbers of families in the UK are depending on food banks, and campaigners like Marcus Rashford are having to lobby for a response from the Conservative government. Rather than a socially-levelling force, schools reflect the inequalities prevalent in wider British society – and as income inequality grows, and poorer families have to get by with less and less, reliable resources like libraries become an increasingly vital community spaces that can help bridge the gaps.

Access to books isn’t purely functional: a child from a low-income household deserves to read for pleasure and explore the creativity of their imagination as much as any other. Campaigns like the Free Books Campaign and BookTrust have been essential in compensating for losses to public funding and ensuring that all children have the opportunity to read outside of school.

As Sofia Akel, founder of the Free Books Campaign, highlights, ‘Access to books is important for many reasons, from developing the essential reading and writing skills needed to navigate the education system and beyond, to also providing fertile ground for children of all backgrounds to explore their creativity, fuel their imagination and for some, be their escape and reprieve from the harsh realities of living under austerity. The power of books cannot be undermined – many would agree that education is a basic human right, and by the same token, access to books must also be a universal right, as for some, it holds the keys to a brighter future.’

The inflated pressure on the NHS and social care sector this year is inevitably going to see libraries put at heightened risk of further cuts. As one of the sole community spaces that remain in our reach, we cannot afford to lose them. As public spending is further compromised and our communal resources are commodified by the private sector as opportunities for profit, families who cannot afford to make up for communal losses on an individual basis will be the ones to lose out.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of visiting the local library each Saturday to pick up some new books. I refuse to imagine a future where this is no longer a possibility for children growing up: libraries are essential resources in numerous ways, and we cannot allow the continuing erosion of public services to erase them from the lives of our communities.