Continuing public sector cuts are having a massive impact on library services in England, with many services being forced to close libraries and cut staff and resources. The one positive aspect of this depressing picture is the growing, visible public support for libraries both at a local and national level, which has brought attention and focus to the debate.
For us one of the most important benefits of a library is the nature of the space it provides. Amid a long-term decline in community spaces and facilities, public libraries remain the only free, neutral places in accessible locations where different generations, classes and religions are able to learn, play and socialise on an equal footing. The resources that a library holds are key to its service delivery. But most importantly the physical space that a library occupies and the physical contact that it creates between librarian and individuals and groups is the glue for a community. Virtual books are a reality, virtual libraries a possibility – but that doesn’t kill the need for a physical book or a physical library space – because the two experiences are quite different.
Our society increasingly revolves around access to knowledge and information. For those with access to the Internet at home, this shift is efficient and progressive. For those that can’t afford Internet at home this move represents another aspect of the widening gap between rich and poor. Public libraries remain one of the only places where anyone can use the Internet for free.
Unesco acknowledges the important role libraries play, setting out an ambition that is worth quoting at length: “Freedom, Prosperity and the Development of society and individuals are fundamental human values…. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information…The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.”
The move for libraries funding to the Arts Council opens up new possibilities. New partnerships with cultural organisations could develop the focus on the physical space, the acknowledgement that the activity that takes place in a library is as important as the books on its shelves.
 Local authorities are legally obliged to abide by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. This Law means that public libraries are a statutory service; councils have a legal duty to provide them. Councils must ensure that the service they provide is “comprehensive and efficient”. They also have a duty to promote the service and to encourage people to use it.