Speaking out about the closure of libraries
Last week brought a wave of bad news for literature in the North East. Newcastle City Council announced that they are proposing to close up to 17 (80%) of Newcastle’s libraries as a result of the need to address severe budget cuts. Gateshead Council have proposed closing five libraries. Newcastle City Council have also announced a potential 100% cut to cultural and arts funding which would impact on organisations such as Northern Stage, Live Theatre, Seven Stories and the Tyneside Cinema. This shocking news has been met with a tide of protest from leading writers including Anne Fine, David Almond and Lee Hall, who have spoken out about the shortsightedness of the proposals. Lee Hall’s eloquent open letter to Nick Forbes, Leader of the City Council, sums up both the political and social impact of the cuts.
Here at New Writing North we have worked with libraries across the region for many years and have followed the recent challenges to their status and funding. We would like to express our support to all of our librarian friends across the region as they deal with this news. We are heartened that some local authorities have found ways to protect funding and have negotiated reduced opening hours rather than closure (Durham County Council, for example) to their libraries. It is almost impossible to contemplate what the erosion of a library service means to us all, culturally and educationally. It’s also hard to digest the feeling that these closures are happening on our watch, in councils controlled by Labour leaderships. From our working relationships with senior librarians and public sector managers, we know that nobody in those jobs is happy about having to make such cuts, but they are all in a position where the cuts to their budgets are unmanageable. We hope, as Lee Hall says in his letter, that some of these proposals are posturing to attract attention to the level of cuts but we fear that ultimately they are not. The suggestion that a solution to this matter is more libraries run by volunteers is a position of last resort, not a credible or sustainable way forward and likely, if it works at all, to work in affluent areas of the city.
We all have our own stories of how access to libraries helped us become the people that we are now. My own upbringing in a working class northern family was transformed by a well-stocked local library that resourced the reading and education of my family and still does. The educational and community use of libraries has been well documented but less so perhaps has been the business support that libraries give to writers. Through our Read Regional project, for example, 23 library authorities across Yorkshire and Humberside and the North East support the promotion and purchasing of work by local writers. This year the libraries involved purchased over £3,000 of books to support the project and over 60 author events are taking place. Attending many of these events is heartening as is meeting the reading groups who form a backbone of many library services. Activities of this sort are taking place day in and day out in our region’s libraries. We must not lose all of this good work.
These announcements come at the same time as the region is considering the impact of cutbacks to the Arts Council’s operations in the North East, which are also brutal and profound and which will lessen our voice and our position in the national picture. The North East is due to lose a Literature Relationship Manager, making us the only northern region without one. In a region that is a powerhouse of literary activity and home to not just New Writing North, but also Bloodaxe Books, Seven Stories and Impress Books, this decision is very hard to understand.
As a region of writers and readers and arts professionals, we need to ensure that our voices and our views are heard. Many people reading this will be writers and readers: we urge you to get involved and ensure that your voices are not lost in this debate. Don’t sit back, act now.
Newcastle City Council’s draft budget proposals will be published on their website on 20 November; these are subject to formal approval by cabinet on 28 November. Formal consultation will begin at this point and close on 1 February 2013. The council are open to any comments you wish to make on how their proposed changes will impact on you and your community. They are, they say, also interested in hearing any actions you think they can take to minimise these impacts. For more information, see www.newcastle.gov.uk/news-story/have-your-say-our-newcastle-2016-budget.
There are two things that you can do right now to support the campaign against the library cuts in Newcastle: firstly, if you are an author, you can sign this open letter, and secondly you can attend the Save Newcastle Libraries Emergency Meeting on Tuesday 20 November at 7pm at St John’s Church, 30 Grainger Street, Newcastle. Please also spread the word about the meeting and the letter to writers and readers in your networks.
Claire Malcolm, chief executive, New Writing North