A Cultural Vandalism That Must Be Brought to Book; A Leading Writer Blames Cost-Cutting Councils for Trouble That Could Turn into a Sad Chapter in the History of Scotland's Public Libraries

Daily Mail (London), October 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Cultural Vandalism That Must Be Brought to Book; A Leading Writer Blames Cost-Cutting Councils for Trouble That Could Turn into a Sad Chapter in the History of Scotland's Public Libraries


Byline: ALLAN MASSIE

LIBRARIES have been a godsend for generations of people. Some have learned more from public libraries than they have from schools.

The writer Osbert Sitwell used to declare in Who's Who that he was educated in the holidays from Eton.

That was a piece of showing off, but there are plenty of people in Glasgow and elsewhere who could state with absolute truth that the public libraries gave them a second chance, the opportunity to educate themselves after their schools had failed to do so.

But now, with local authority cuts across Scotland and some staff in Glasgow going on strike, there are serious worries about the future of these great resources.

Eight years ago Glasgow was the European City of Culture.

Now its library staff are on indefinite strike in protest against cuts in shift payments and changing work patterns.

Liz Cameron, who is convenor of Glasgow's arts and culture committee, is accusing the strikers of damaging the service at a time when the city has the lowest level of library membership in Scotland. She says: 'This could jeopardise the future of the library service.'

Determined

She also claims she is determined to see it developed, but not, apparently, sufficiently determined to see to it that library staff are decently paid.

In Glasgow, library membership has fallen by a quarter in the last two years. Nevertheless, it still stands at 33 per cent of the population; and if that is indeed the lowest level of library membership in Scotland, it suggests their future is secure and that we Scots do indeed value our public libraries.

The drop in library membership is explained on several counts.

The popularity of bookshops offering reading areas, coffee rooms and Internet access, is seen by some as a threat to library services. I am sceptical.

It is more likely that cuts in libraries' book-buying grants and, in some places, cuts in opening hours are responsible.

In other words, it is the councils themselves that are making libraries less attractive.

Public libraries of one kind or another in Scotland can trace their origins back to the 17th century at least. But the library system as we know it is, like so much else that is good and admirable in Scotland, the creation of the 19th century.

It was given impetus by merchant or industrial philanthropists, not by the state, which only took over responsibility for running libraries through the local authorities.

It would be a sad commentary on a century which has seen the relentless growth of public expenditure if it was to end with the closing of libraries, on grounds of costs.

The great promoter of free public libraries was Dunfermline-born Andrew Car-negie, who went to America and made his fortune. He believed it was the duty of the rich man to 'distribute his surplus wealth for the general welfare' - and endowed 2,500 free libraries in the U.S., Scotland, England and Canada.

But Carnegie wasn't alone in such benefactions. He wasn't even first in the field. …

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