Belfast Telegraph

Get on the march to safeguard our valued libraries

Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

By Eamonn McCann

Roy and Emily didn't manage to save Weatherfield Library, despite their feisty sit-in and a petition signed by every customer at the Rover's Return. Somebody burned the building down before they could bring the issue to a head.

Coronation Street is more grittily true-to-life than other soaps. Its producers strive to attach storylines to emerging social issues. They will have been aware of the slow-rising tempo of protest at library cutbacks and closures.

The issue will be a factor in the public sector strike on October 14. But it has hardly been looming large in the north so far. The dust kicked up by argy-bargy over welfare reform and the threat of even more devastating cuts if welfare reform isn't accepted has obscured the fact that cuts emanating from Westminster are already being passed on by the Stormont parties. Our 96 libraries are a case in point.

In a letter to staff last week, Libraries NI chief executive Irene Knox warned that spending cuts being introduced this month will involve job losses and drastic reductions in services – and that this will only be a start. She "could not rule out the need for further in-year savings ... You will know that the outlook for 2015-2016 and beyond does not appear good".

Ms Knox has been told by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to lop £1.4m off this year's spending. Making "savings" of this order, she explained, will require "reducing the stock budget, curtailing planned maintenance, not filling vacant posts and cutting back on programming, travel and training". She added: "There will be no (agency) cover to facilitate managers in the libraries serving the most deprived areas to engage more proactively in outreach work ... Staffing levels in all branch libraries are being reviewed to identify the minimum staffing levels possible to allow libraries to remain open and continue to offer the core services. It is likely to be the case that vacancies in branch libraries will not be filled." The drive to reduce staffing costs "could result in temporary ad hoc closures where there are staff shortages".

Late-night opening is likely to be available only at larger libraries and on one or two nights a week. At Christmas, libraries will be closed not just for the statutory holidays, but from December 23 to January 2. The budget for maintaining stock is being slashed by £489,000. The bill for newspapers and magazines will also be significantly reduced.

An estimated £150,000 will be cut from the maintenance budget – "which means that only work that is deemed to be absolutely essential will be undertaken".

A planned advertising campaign to promote free wi-fi at branches has been abandoned. This will hit students and jobseekers hard. Drop into any of our libraries on an afternoon and you'll be lucky to find a seat at a terminal.

Libraries are not just places where books are stored for borrowing, or publications provided for senior citizens to browse a morning away – valuable as these functions are. Libraries are community facilities making a real difference to the lives of many thousands.

One of the reasons there has been relatively little hullabaloo here is that on this, as on so much else, debate is framed in traditional Northern Ireland terms. The DUP couldn't contain its glee that it is a Sinn Fein minister who is wielding the axe.

Upper Bann MP David Simpson declared that: "Libraries are a vital resource for our communities. In recent years libraries have been proactive in adapting to a changing society and usage figures have reflected this. These cuts, however, will damage the service and cause a loss in usage and ultimately revenue."

Positive stuff. Then came the clincher. "The greatest step that the minister (Caral Ni Chuilin) could take would be to ignore the dictates from her party masters in Dublin and get on with implementing the Welfare Reform Bill."

In fact, the current DCAL cuts have nothing to do with welfare reform. And, anyway, they cut nowhere near as deep as the late (politically speaking) Nelson McCausland's at DSD (who knew Nelson banned repair of street-lights before closing the door behind him?).

David Simpson's priority was not to defend our libraries, but to get in a dig at the Shinners.

If there are some out there minded to follow the lead of Roy and Emily, good luck. For others among us, it would be a start to mark down October 14 in our diaries and shout out for our libraries as we march along.

Belfast Telegraph

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