Doncaster has a Borough Strategy, which the council describe as "the key long-term document for improving quality of life in Doncaster". It calls for "mutual support, community structures, and civic pride".
The town already has severe problems with educational attainment, literacy, employment, health, crime and poverty. More people are out of work and claiming Job-Seekers Allowance in Doncaster compared to the national average (Doncaster’s Borough Strategy 2010-2015). Crime rates are higher than the national average (Doncaster’s Borough Strategy 2010-2015).
More and more people will soon find themselves redundant and with more financial problems. Libraries are needed and used more in times of recession and economic difficulty. (see this article from the Wall Street Journal, too).
The council and the people of Doncaster would benefit from community hubs which offer things like:
- Urgent help and advice on how to search for jobs, update CVs and survive the cuts;
- Careers workshops;
- Counselling services;
- Free access to books, cds, dvds, online databases, encyclopaedias etc. for recreation and learning;
- Free access to audiobooks (books on tape), ebooks, accessibility software, Braille services etc. for disabled and elderly people. These are often too expensive for people to buy and are not readily available in shops;
- Free access to the internet, which particularly helps the 30+ per cent of people in Doncaster who don't have access at home. This would help the council to tackle the digital divide;
- Homework clubs and support from library staff, for all children but especially those who benefit from out-of-school learning and can't easily study at home due to space or living situations;
- Library resources that aren't available in schools (school libraries are not statutory and many look set to close in the next couple of years).
When you look at the Mayor's priorities, and compare them with the ways in which libraries across the world benefit societies, it becomes even more apparent that he has no idea what libraries do. If he did understand, he'd be prioritising libraries just as much as he says he does old people's services and other services, just as more than twenty other councils are. And seeing as he clearly has no clue, how can he have the right to destroy a service he admits he's never used?
Many councils across the country are using library services to support council priorities. For example, Haringey libraries are to become community hubs, better promoting the services they already provide, such as: health check sessions; help for small businesses; drop-in sessions and lunch clubs for older people; and a range of activities for children.
So how could this be done in Doncaster? And how could it help the Mayor?
- It's a well-known fact that library use improves literacy. It only makes sense that reading more helps you read better...but we also have proof that this is the case: the National Literacy Trust has found that children who use libraries are twice as likely to have a higher than average reading age. Surely this is something that the Mayor would support? Alas, the Mayor said on You & Yours on BBC Radio 4 a few days ago that the idea that libraries support literacy is untrue! Well, if perhaps he'd admit he's wrong on that count, maybe libraries could help him in his aim to"improve services for children and young people". Libraries are a very cheap way of supporting every single child in Doncaster. It's not just about children in care, it's about the life chances of all children, which are known to be very limited in this area.
- The Mayor is "keen that Doncaster offers all its residents the opportunity to improve their skills and realise their ambitions". A laudable aim that libraries in their very nature support. In a meeting with Bawtry residents last week, the Mayor told a little girl that if she wanted to improve her literacy she should do it at school. This is all well and good, but what about adults who need to improve their literacy? There are many adults in Doncaster whose employment opportunities are severely limited due to low levels of literacy, and library resources such as specialist books for adults learning to read and improve their reading are the perfect way to offer people the "opportunity to improve their skills". Doncaster engages in the government's Adult, Family and Community Learning courses, so many of which could be supported by libraries at no extra cost to the library service - local history, family history, DIY, gardening, drawing skills, sugarcraft, learning languages, healthy cookery, art...what better way than to apply some joined-up thinking to services and make it even clearer that libraries offer residents the "opportunity to release their skills and realise their ambitions"?
- The Mayor "wants to ensure residents with learning disabilities are accepted as people in their own right in their local communities". In the majority of Doncaster communities, libraries are the only community space left. If they close (which it is highly likely they will because the council has no idea if and how volunteers will run the services that they are no longer willing to provide) there will be nowhere left for people to go where they will meet a mix of people from all backgrounds and of all ages and abilities. Bawtry and Wheatley libraries for example, are used weekly by children with learning disabilities, who love the libraries and their staff and will be absolutely devastated when they have this access taken away. When there is nowhere for people to mix, residents with learning disabilities will be more isolated and marginalised by communities.
- The Mayor wants to let the world know that "Doncaster is ‘open for business’". One of the things that businesses take into account when looking at new locations for sites is 'quality of life' in the area, which includes community facilities and library services. By removing branch libraries and removing the new central library from the plans for Doncaster's £300 million Civic and Cultural Quarter, the council is shooting itself in the foot if they want business in Doncaster to improve. Closing libraries will have an impact on existing businesses, because when people visit a library they may also pop to the local shops. When the library goes and they have to use the central library, they're far less likely to do this - especially if they have to walk all the way across town from the bus station to the central library with a pile of books.
- The Mayor wants to protect the environment from developers, decay and architectural vandalism. What better way to help this along than to provide a place in every community where people can go to learn about the cultural heritage of Doncaster, access specialist books about environmental issues, and find out how they can get involved in challenging developers' plans? Unfortunately, in an ironic twist, it appears that Bawtry and Rossington libraries will be sold off to make way for new developments.
- The Mayor wants to "reduce crime and end all forms of anti-social behaviour". A lot of his work has focussed on punishment, but what about nipping any potential problems in the bud before people are inconvenienced and upset by poor behaviour? Allowing children the opportunity to use a library and be involved in creative and productive activities helps break cycles of destructive behaviour. Neighbourhood Police Teams already use libraries as places people can go to speak to them about dealing with problems in the community, and anti-social behaviour could be one of the topics. In terms of reducing crime, public library use is strongly linked to reducing re-offending.
- The Mayor says he "remain[s] firmly of the belief that councils should provide residents with efficient and value for money services that make the borough a better place to live for all of us". The consultancy report conducted by a libraries expert cost upwards of £15,000. The council are now ignoring the recommendations made, including many measures to make the service more efficient, and instead have chosen to remove funding from 14 libraries and offer communities the chance to run them. This is the easy way out for the council, but does not guarantee that the service that is left will be efficient or value for money. It especially won't be value for money for council tax payers who will still be paying £18 a year for public libraries, when there is no longer one in their area.
As the leader of the council, the Mayor has a duty to serve the residents of Doncaster. He says "The council is the servant of the public, not its master." We'd like the Mayor to honour this assertion and listen to the 14,000+ residents of Doncaster who have already told him that the cuts he is making to Doncaster libraries are not acceptable. We'd like him to look at the resources linked to from this article and think about the role of libraries. We'd like the council to look at the impact that the disproportionate and ill-planned cuts will have to library services and the people of Doncaster. There is still time to do this, and it is absolutely unacceptable that it has not already been done.
Originally posted on the Save Doncaster Libraries blog: