Ladies of the WI join the ranks of the bolshy book borrowers

Kevin Meagher reports on the launch of the Women's Institute's ‘Love your Libraries’ campaign, and the other nationwide campaigns to save our libraries.

Better known for jam-making and polite renditions of Jerusalem, the Women’s Institute are the latest recruits to the progressive consensus building to oppose library closures across the country.

Earlier this month the WI’s AGM voted by a near unanimous 98 per cent in favour of a new campaign – ‘Love your Libraries’ – to counter threatened library closures, reductions in opening hours and moves to replace trained librarians with volunteers.

As the Financial Times warned (£) earlier this week:

“News of the campaign is likely to ring alarm bells in Downing Street given previous encounters between politicians and the WI’s formidable members.”

Welcoming the WI’s move, Annie Mauger, chief executive of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), said:

“I’m thrilled that we have a new and powerful friend fighting our corner.

“It’s fabulous news for the millions of people across the UK that love their libraries. Libraries are an essential education and information resource. They are at the heart of communities across the country and are too important to lose.”

CILIP estimates that 600 libraries are under threat as cash-strapped councils across the country look to offset the government’s financial squeeze by reducing library opening hours or closing them outright, due to falling usage and the often high cost of maintaining listed buildings.

But snapshot figures of overall library usage do not tell the whole story.

Analysis of the latest figures compiled by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) for 2008-09 shows a split between declining adult borrowing and steadily increased lending to children.

Libraries are in flux, with many reinventing themselves by opening coffee shops and operating a service at the weekend. Meanwhile, the number of visits to library websites rose by an astonishing 63 per cent between 20007-08 and 2008-09 to nearly 80 million.

So rather than relics of our pre-digital past libraries can be successfully modernised for the future. Which is just as well given research by Ipsos Mori and Shared Intelligence that shows an enduring affinity between the British public and their libraries.

Three-quarters of users surveyed said libraries were “essential” or “very important” in their lives, while 59 per cent of non-users still think libraries play an “important” or “essential” role in the community. The research also finds that people’s library use tends to vary as their life circumstances change – as they have children, retire, or take up study.

So while public libraries are an enduring community and educational resource for adults, their importance to children is even more fundamental.

As Jonathan Douglas from the National Literacy Trust points out:

“Libraries make the most difference to those [children] who have the fewest books at home, where parental engagement is likely to be weakest and amongst those least likely to buy books or value reading.

“Libraries have a disproportionate benefit for the most disadvantaged.”

So as well as their prosaic role in lending books, libraries are powerful engines of community cohesion and social mobility.

The Women’s Institute move is significant and welcome. With 200,000 individual members across the country, the WI has real organisational clout and joins a growing list of campaigners across the country mounting effective campaigns that are forcing councils to think again.

The campaign is spreading – and receiving heavyweight literary endorsement. New children’s laureate, Julia Donaldson, recently took part in a “read-in” to campaign against cuts, while the writer Alan Bennett was more outspoken in saying threatened closures of children’s libraries in his native Yorkshire amounted to a form of “child abuse”.

All this builds towards the first National Libraries Day next February as community campaigners, social mobility advocates and now the ladies of the WI muster in defence of our public libraries. Councils across the country – of all political persuasions – take note: the bolshy book borrowers of Britain are on the march.

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