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It’s that stressful time of year again.  Council budgets are being struck.  While schools will certainly be affected there is another sphere of local authority expenditure reductions which will impact directly on education.
Moray Council has already agreed to close seven of its fifteen public libraries.It faced local protests in all the affected communities and the issue is now being reviewed by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
The City of Edinburgh Council is also looking to rationalise library provision but by a different approach.  The proposal in the capital is to move school library resources into the public libraries, reduce the number of school librarians by 50% and subsume the school library service into the public library service.
Library usage and the social norms around reading and engaging with public libraries have certainly changed significantly over the last 50 years.  Perhaps the most dramatic symbol of that change was Midlothian Council Library Service’s  staging a free pole-dancing class in Mayfield Library in February this year in an attempt to persuade more people to use the service.  Only a system facing crisis (and a crassly uncultured management) would resort to such methods.
That was not the quite case however in 2011.   Scottish libraries funding had remained steady compared to 2010, while English funding reduced by 5.1%.   Scottish libraries usage – in terms of not only books issued but also in visits and active users – slightly increased while English usage went down by some 4%.  It was almost as if the UK is a scientific experiment on the impact of funding on usage, with Scotland as the control. Libraries can therefore remain vital components of local communities. 
Indeed, some public libraries are thriving.  Anyone who knows and uses Glasgow’s Mitchell Library can see how a well-run facility, eager to broaden its appeal and its range of activities, can become a buzzing institution.  Like the best of public libraries it has enthusiastically embraced the digital age.  It hosts a wide range of hugely popular cultural events including the iconic Aye Write literary festival.  It has a café in which it is a pleasure to eat.  Literacy is pursued relentlessly but in a contemporary manner.
There also remains an essential purpose for local libraries.  Many parents still use libraries with their children.  Many local libraries offer a range of community learning opportunities.  Research and reference functions are increasingly crucial to the purposes of local libraries.  Local archives are increasingly library-based.  (I recently used the archives in Dumfries’s Ewart Library, a superb service.)
The function of public libraries is however changing.  The old norms of a book-borrowing population have changed significantly and council funding is under serious pressure, in part because of the ill-conceived Council Tax freeze.
There may well be a case for a rationalisation of library services.  To centre the necessary reorganisation on school libraries however is a potential disaster.  Perhaps I have been fortunate, having worked with enthusiastic, child-centred school librarians throughout my teaching career but I doubt if my experiences are unusual.
Few aspects of schools are so well suited to Curriculum for Excellence’s drive for open, learner-led learning than school libraries.  Libraries offer a unique opportunity (often absent at home) for informal learning but peaceful and quiet learning and for individual research and intellectual exploration.
If anything the appropriate move would be in the opposite direction: base more local community facilities, including libraries, in schools.  Edinburgh’s proposals are a sad step for a city which insists that literacy is the top priority of the school curriculum and that culture is at the heart of the city’s self-image.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 4 November 2013.

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