Sunday, September 04, 2005


"Today more than 1.1 billion pounds is spent on libraries, but less than 10 per cent of this is spent on books. Employment costs now account for nearly two thirds of total expenditure, and the number of people employed in libraries has increased since 1995 by some 10 per cent.

Over the past 10 years, the number of books available for reference or lending has declined by 10 per cent. This decline in the quality of the book stock has had a predictable effect on the use of libraries. Lending is pretty much in free fall. If current trends continue, libraries will have no books to lend well before the middle of this century.

If libraries were any normal business, the panic button would have been pressed many years ago. If lapsed library users are asked for their views, market researchers MORI tell us they blame poor book stocks, the shabbiness of library premises, and the fact that libraries are open only at inconvenient times.

Yet it seems that cultural officials aren't that interested in books nowadays. 'Books are not everything, and book-borrowing indicators should not be used as the prime measure of how libraries contribute to local and national priorities', says Professor Mark Hepworth in his foreword to Price Waterhouse Cooper's report 'Libraries Impact Project'. Not much room for misunderstanding here: libraries are no longer just about books, they are not even mainly about books, and the performance of public libraries in the way they deal with books should not be the main way we judge their contribution to society.

Today, according to the library establishment, public libraries must deliver on a new social agenda. Libraries are called on to make contributions to the public health agenda, to the agenda for the elderly, to transforming the local environment, to creating safer and stronger communities, and to raising standards in schools. These are extremely valuable agendas, which need addressing - but not necessarily by public libraries. One might better argue that libraries can only fulfil their social obligations if they are delivering adequately on the book-based services for which they were founded.

At the same time as many librarians seem to give up on their book-based responsibilities, there are pressures on local authorities to deliver more services from fewer resources. One increasingly popular strategy is to redefine the library service and develop it as a kind of one-stop shop in the high street for council services, including a job centre, crŠche, coffee shop, and other services. These buildings can be safely rebranded as a Discovery Centre, an Idea Store, or a Cultural Centre - some meaningless synthetic label which can over time come to mean anything.

Lyn Brown from the Local Government Association argued that 'libraries are not any more just a depository of books; they have become village halls'. The Audit Commission and others responsible for setting library standards adopt a similar position. 'The fact that libraries may now be spending a much lower proportion of their total budgets on books than in the past is not necessarily a cause of concern', the commission says.

Once libraries were known as the 'universities of the street corner'. Today libraries have lost any prospect of being universities. They have sunk to the level of the urbanised village hall, where drama groups, crŠches, karaoke and slimming clubs are in the ascendant and the book is destined for the skip.

For the last couple of years, Libri, the charity for which I am a spokesman, has been campaigning to reverse the decline in public libraries with some common-sense thinking. Let's start with having libraries open when most library users can use them - ie, after work and at weekends. Today, there are just 64 libraries in the UK that are open more than 60 hours per week, which amounts to just eight-and-a-half hours a day. It would be great to have libraries where the stock of books is up-to-date, and reflected the needs and wants of the local library user.

Libri's reports have raised the public profile of the decline of libraries, but so far little concrete action has resulted. Book budgets continue to be cut. Opening hours increase painfully slowly. Book lending continues to decline. Premises continue to be shabby, unwelcoming, dispiriting places. All that is necessary for public libraries to continue their rapid slide to extinction is that library users do nothing".



During my stint as guest-blogger on Tongue-Tied, I put up a post that strayed far into politically incorrect territory as far as Leftists are concerned -- a post about the ultimately unsuccessful struggle of America's South to gain its independence from the North. I said that as far as I could see from where I sit in Australia, the war was about a lot more than slavery. What rather surprised me was the reaction. I got a HEAP of emails that agreed with me and only one that disagreed. I therefore repeat below what I originally wrote plus a follow-up comment:

Confederate Memories Expose Sham Tolerance

Leftists never cease to preach the wonders of tolerance and diversity. But it is all a sham. They want uniformity, not diversity. Just listen to how much tolerance was extended to the diversity shown in the household described below:

""Mizzerable", in Texas, invited two African-Americans over for a dinner party. "On a tour of my home, I thought nothing of taking them to my study/library upstairs. Along with many other things, I have displayed on my wall three flags - the U.S. flag, the Texas flag and the Confederate flag. My medic friend gasped and asked why I had a rebel flag. I replied that it was a part of my heritage and I was proud of that. The pained look on her face reminded me of someone who had been fatally wounded. To her credit, she let me explain that I had two Confederate officers (in my family) who had died fighting for what they believed in. "I don't believe that the reason for the Civil War was primarily slavery. I have researched my genealogy and can find no evidence they had slaves of any race. Never mind all that - my friend was offended and said she guessed she didn't really know me at all. I was deeply wounded, but did my best to understand. They left in a huff"


I am not criticizing the particular blacks above who got offended. They were just reacting the way their liberal mentors have encouraged them to react -- seeing "racism" under every bush (or Bush!). But if their liberal mentors had REALLY been teaching tolerance, such a huge historical issue as the North/South war would have been the first issue they would have turned to as an area in which to preach that tolerance, understanding and forgiveness should be practiced and old antagonisms buried or forgiven.

And forgive an ignorant Australian if I have got it all wrong but when I read the original documents (e.g. here), it seems to me that while slavery was an undoubted element in the North/South dispute, Lincoln always stressed that the war was fought to save "the Union". And slaves are not mentioned once in the Gettysburg address. Whether we think half a million dead Americans were a worthwhile price to pay for preserving and extending the power of the U.S. Federal government is an issue for Americans, not for me. I would however think that the view that the price was too high might at least be treated with respect, rather than intolerance.

In thinking about that price it may be worth reflecting that Australia managed to free its slaves (convicts) and create a lasting Federation without a drop of blood being shed. Two of my ancestors were among the convicts concerned. So my ancestors came to my country chained up in the holds of sailing ships. Hey! Where are my reparations?

Follow-up comment:

I feel I should mention that I received a HEAP of emails about my comments on America's North/South war. My comment was that from my perch in faraway Australia, it looked to me like the war was about power, not slaves. Cynical old me!

Only one of the emails I received disagreed with me. The rest were supportive and some were -- Ahem! -- decidedly robust -- suggesting that Lincoln differed from Hitler only in that Lincoln was the bigger hypocrite etc., etc. A lot of people really gagged on that "malice towards none" in the Second Inaugural address. So I feel that I should post here at least one of the emails I received. The one below seems short and sharp and to the point:

"Actually, "The War for Southern Independence" was started when the Southern Territories seceded from the Union over unfair taxation policies. Slavery was not really brought into play until Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves ONLY in the Southern regions he no longer had legal control over. This was done to gain the support of blacks both free and enslaved. Lincoln was the first President to never have owned slaves, only because his family was too poor, but he was openly segregationist. If you look into the history, not the basic BS taught in public schools, the Northern states received almost all of the slave ships. Also compare the dates that the Northern States abolished slavery".

I stress that I am NO expert on American history and you could fill a whole library with books that have been written about the war so I acknowledge that any generalization about it is bound to have its problems. I do however note that EVERY other country in the world (as far as I know) freed its slaves WITHOUT a war. So that suggests to me that the American war was about a lot more than slaves.

What I think that truly sensitive people (as distinct from pseudo-sensitive Leftists) might do well always to be aware of, however, is the depth of feeling that the war still evokes among many Southerners. And that feeling is not going to go away soon. Go to Yorkshire in England and ask the typical Yorkshireman what he thinks of Lancastrians. You will get an earful. And THAT goes back to the Wars of the Roses, which ended around 500 years ago. It almost helps you to understand the Irish! (And I have got a lot of Irish in me -- of which I am proud -- so I can say that!).

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