Anti-multiculturalism gone mad or a rational policy shift?

1. What’s it all about?

Council removes foreign language papers from libaries (sic) to encourage English speaking

This article – with its ironic misspelling of ‘libraries’ – in the Daily Telegraph Education Section of 11th May was posted on Facebook by a German colleague: “Sir Robin Wales, elected Labour Mayor of the east London borough, said removing the papers would ‘encourage people to speak and learn English’”. What strange inverted logic justified such a decision?

There was no evidence that readers of community language ‘papers did not speak English, were not in fact multilingual, or that there is any resistance in Newham to learning English.

In one lone quote “Priyonath Singh, 76, of Newham, said: (in English) “It’s appalling. It’s a drastic measure. If you remove the newspapers, my mental age will be reduced completely.’” Reader comments under the DT article talked of foreigners, benefits, ex-pat Brits in Spain and so on; lots of ‘them and ‘us’. The Telegraph’s motivation was evident in a banner in the middle of the story,

Related Articles • Polish migrants top crime table 11 Apr 2011 • British courts regain power to deport terrorist suspects 27 Apr 2011

implying a “related”-ness between mother tongue speakers learning English and migrant criminals and terrorism; and in this an educational supplement!

There was nothing to acknowledge the information role of the public library or its legal responsibilities for a “comprehensive service” for “all who live, work or study” or “for all who may be desirous to make use thereof”.

Strange in an Olympic borough with a Labour Mayor, not far from Diane Abbott’s Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency,  and with redoubtable library leaders.

2. So what did Sir Robin do? How did he reach this decision?

I wrote to Sir Robin Wales. A helpful officer replied, referring to a Customer Services section, without mention of a library service or a librarian.

Of over 70 periodicals cut, only a minority are community language staples like the Daily Jang “Find Pakistan news in Urdu No.1 Urdu newspaper and largest Urdu daily” and Asian Voice, in English, UK and international politics and community affairs reflecting the interests of the UK Asian community.

Cut are African Caribbean lifestyle magazines like Ebony and Pride. There is an Irish focus – Irish Times, Irish Independent. Subject journals have gone like Investors Chronicle, Scientific American, British Medical Journal and Private Eye plus local interest ‘papers like the Hackney Gazette and the East London Advertiser. Users are now referred, “We have an online subscription to NewsUK”

The Council will also

  • introduce Learn English collections … online teach-yourself English language courses
  • investigate a ‘Language Lab,’ with ICT for self-learning and tutor-led English learning sessions in one or more Customer Service Centres
  • provide online ‘Life in Great Britain’ course and related stock to allow customers to practice for their citizenship test at the library or from home.

3. An Equalities Impact Assessment


This outlines Newham’s demography (paraphrased)

  • 70% of the population is from non-white ethnic groups
  • largest non-white group is Black African, 15.8%
  • Asian ethic groups – Indian (11.8%), Pakistani (10.8%) and Bangladeshi (10.7%) – one-third of the borough’s population.
  • ‘White’ population will not reflect the recent increase in Eastern European migration
  • Schools Census data indicates 73.9% of pupils (primary) and 65.6% (secondary) have a language other than English as their first language
  • top ten languages requested for interpretation and translation were (in order) Bengali (20.6%), Urdu (11.1%), Somali (6.5%), Tamil (5.9%), Polish (5.5%), Punjabi (5.0%), Portuguese (4.5%), Gujarat (4.5%), Lithuanian (3.1%) and Romanian (3.0%)
  • Analysis (2009/10) of library membership indicates that compared to Newham’s population some ethnic groups are over represented.

4. A shift in policy


In the 1970s/1980’s UK librarians struggled to introduce community language material into public libraries largely, for the first time. Libraries held European language material (leisure, travel, academic interests) but provision of Indic and South Asian language material met with resistance with “them and us” debates and the view that “they’ll integrate and learn English”. Migration seemed like a finite movement rather than the continuation of a global phenomenon. Read about public library evolution since that time in two recent publications, Public Libraries and Social Justice or Libraries and Social change .

Latterly, public librarians have yearned for an acknowledged position in the mainstream of social and economic policy. Even as a culture provider they have sought to connect reading, literature, music and the wider arts with literacy, learning, skills, employability confidence, quality of life, health and wellbeing, family and community cohesion, and economic growth.

5. In Newham …

The briefest glance at Newham’s website tells you the libraries provide most of what other authorities provide.

Yet this decision tells another story – a belief that public library services

  • can be part of the mainstream of public services
  • can deliver on learning and skills
  • do have a socio-economic role to play
  • do make an instrumental contribution

There is a significant backdrop of generational change. Older members of ethnic communities hanker for the daily news from their home country or village. Some meet at the library – in Newham, Birmingham, Manchester – to read and share news from places where they grew up. Now the wider community and its governors need something more purposive the library can deliver on – learning, skills, work.


Multiculturalism in Newham may be here, going or gone. Even so delivering to local black and minority ethnic communities a replica of their written and spoken culture need no longer be a public library priority; here the library draws people to a mainstream economic purpose in a library that’s a policy vehicle and political resource.

John Dolan OBE 30 June 2011


[1] Public Libraries and Social Justice, Pateman, John and Vincent, John. Ashgate 2010

[1] Libraries and Society: Role, responsibility and future in an age of change, Baker, David and Evans, Wendy, editors. Chandos Publishing 2011

Edit: 02/09/2011

Since the publication of this piece, a petition voicing concerns about the London Borough of Newham Council’s actions has been set up. The full text appears below.

We the undersigned wish to voice our concern about and objection to the decision taken by the London Borough of Newham to remove community-language newspapers from the borough’s libraries. 

This new policy has been introduced under the guise of reducing barriers to learning English that mother-tongue newspapers and books are supposedly responsible for creating and maintaining.

We call upon Newham council to:

1. Reinstate community-language newspapers in Newham’s libraries. 
2. Prioritise funding and further resources to provision of English as a Second Language (ESOL). 
3. To commit to the continued provision of community-language books and audio books in Newham’s libraries.
4. To recognise and celebrate the unique diversity of the London Borough of Newham including recognition of the languages and cultures of its individual communities.

An electronic version of the petition can be signed here.