Fighting to keep public libraries open in Oxford

Marcus Ferrar
Author: Marcus Ferrar, writer, Oxforder

How can one keep public libraries alive in an age of public service cuts and massive access to information through ebooks and social media? Indeed, do people still want public libraries?

Oxfordshire’s County Council – the local government – thought «no» seven years ago, and announced plans to close all but one of its 22 public libraries.
The result was revolution. Citizens sprang to the defence of a service they considered essential in a great city of learning, and still clearly beloved by young and old. Famous Oxford writers such as Colin Dexter and Philip Pullman condemned Councillors as philistines in public meetings, and mothers with small children staged colourful demonstrations. The Council backed down, its leader resigned, and all 22 public libraries remain open.

But that has not taken away severe financial pressures. Starved of finance by a conservative central government, local Councils all over Britain struggle to maintain essential social services. So public libraries usually stand little or no chance of obtaining new public funding, and many may lapse into dereliction.

For seven years, residents collected 90 thousand pounds sterling for the reconstruction of the library

In my area of north Oxford, citizens set up a group of volunteer «Friends of Summertown Library», which I chair. As the Council could not afford to renovate the building, we decided to raise funds ourselves. Over seven years, we gathered £90,000, and a thorough renovation will begin this summer. The library will have a more flexible layout, movable bookshelves will create space for talks, the children’s corner will be relocated close to a garden, bright new furnishings will make it more friendly, and IT facilities will be upgraded.

Our funding approach is innovative, but it could not be expected to work in parts of Oxford where poor people live with no money to spare. In the meantime however the Council itself has come up with some bright new ideas. When new commercial developments were planned in the city centre and in the nearby town of Bicester, the Council granted building permission only on condition that the developers financed new libraries on the premises – which they did. Public libraries are still being closed elsewhere in Britain, but despite the financial pressures some Councils are doing exactly the opposite and investing in striking new facilities. Birmingham, Liverpool, Durham, Leamington, Worcester and the working class London area of Tower Hamlets are outstanding examples.

What does the future hold? Libraries which are starved of funds are losing visitors, and remain under threat of closure. Those which have been renovated and adapted to modern practice have by contrast gained large numbers of new users. They are abuzz with people of all ages long into the evening.

In Oxford’s Summertown, fund-raising rallied the population and businesses behind the public library. After the initial conflict, relations between the Council and the «Friends» became harmonious: we work smoothly together in a public-private partnership. While we find the money, the Council provides design expertise and project management.

Fund-raising can be a tedious task. But one day a woman wrote: «My three small sons were constantly in and out of Summertown library. All three went on to Oxford University, gained first-class degrees and made good careers. Now is pay-back time». Enclosed was a donation of £5,000. At that moment I felt proud to belong to a community which remembers what a good life is founded upon – reading books.

Marcus Ferrar is a former Reuters correspondent who covered the Cold War. He heads a fund-raising group for his local library in Oxford, and is Vice-Chairman of the Dresden Trust, furthering reconciliation between Britain and Dresden. He is author of books about Germany, Eastern Europe and freedom.

Sourse: Business Class newspaper