Eighteen months ago we revealed the reality of the libraries facing closure in Leeds. In contrast to many local authorities around the UK, several of the libraries that the authority had earmarked for closure had, in fact, seen increases in usage both in terms of visits and book issues. With such increases in usage, it puzzled us as to why the authority had decided that these libraries were no longer needed or wanted by their local communities.
Today, it was revealed that three of these libraries have been saved from the axe. However, this is not a cause for celebration. Shadwell, Rawdon and Drighlington are all now subject to “community asset transfers”, which can be more accurately described as enforced community ownership. Enforced as the local community has no choice but to provide these services or accept their closure. According to the figures we obtained through Freedom of Information towards the end of 2010, both Shadwell and Drighlington had seen a rise in library visits year-on-year. Indeed, Drighlington saw an increase in visits of 24%. On this basis it is hard to rationalise the decision to force communities to run them on the basis that the council no longer believes it to be a viable service for them to deliver. But the real story is Cow Close.
Unlike the three “saved” libraries, no business plan was submitted for Cow Close. As a result, the decision as to what to do with this library has been deferred. The fact that no business plan was submitted gets to the heart of the issue with volunteer run libraries. According to the figures we obtained, the unemployment rate amongst the local community was 12.3% (the current UK average is 8.2%) – it is not an affluent area. It is, therefore, completely unreasonable and unrealistic to expect this community to run its own library service.
There is a very clear logical conclusion to this. Communities that do not have the capacity to provide a library service (and those that most need one) will be faced with library closures whereas those within more affluent areas will not. If there are not the skills to provide the service from within the community, there will be no service. The library service will, effectively, become a professionally run service in large urban areas with pockets of community libraries in communities with the capability to provide such a service. In areas where there is no capacity, there will be no library service. These areas are those that need libraries the most. Not just in terms of book borrowing, but also to improve child literacy and, in an area of low internet connectivity, to provide free access to the internet. These factors are crucial in areas such as these to provide people the means and the opportunity to better themselves economically.
So yes, at least there will still be a library service for three of the communities in Leeds that were facing up to the possibility they would have none at all. But the victory is hollow. These libraries should never have been proposed for closure in the first place. And as for Cow Close, there should never have been the expectation that the community would be in a position to step forward and provide the service. Indeed, the local authority should never have proposed it for closure in the first place. “Trio of Leeds libraries saved from closure threat” reads the headline in the Yorkshire Evening Post. Saved they may be, but for how long?