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Libraries that fail to serve communities ‘need to close’, digital charity says

Libraries should not receive a “get out of austerity-free card” and should close unless they can fulfil community needs by putting social inclusion before actual books, the head of a digital charity said this week.

Helen Milner, chief executive of the Tinder Foundation, a charity which aims to help excluded people get involved in digital technology, made her remarks following a House of Lords debate about library closures last week.

Lord Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, called the debate, saying library cuts were “building up a bill” in employment, education and crime problems, and that the government should provide “emergency relief money” to stop local authorities “philistinising” communities.

But Milner said: “I agree with the view that we must protect essential services, knowledge and education for those most disadvantaged in our communities. I agree there is a wider, long-term impact if we don’t. I don’t agree that libraries should receive an automatic ‘get out of austerity-free’ card, merely on the grounds of being libraries."

“Knowledge is no longer just found in books. Increasingly, knowledge, education, history, news and even fiction, are found online. Books are not synonymous with knowledge, and they are certainly not synonymous with community. To be community hubs, libraries need to be about social inclusion before books. And digital inclusion is part of that picture.”

Milner argued that the libraries that were doing an “amazing job” of acting as community centres worked with Jobcentres, Citizens Advice Bureaux, GPs and community and charity groups, and offered services such as digital classes, jobs clubs, mother and toddler groups and school programmes.

She said that libraries that were not doing this “need to close”, with funding being channelled to libraries that are serving the needs of the community.

The chief exec added: “I love libraries. But I love them when they’re fulfilling their potential. When they are not, I believe they are bringing the institution down. I believe they are letting local people down.

“And I’m fed up of seeing them get a free pass, when other community hubs - community centres - are also at the brink of closures, and also faced with the really pointy end of the local council cuts.”

Earlier this year, a BBC investigation found that the total number of council-run libraries has decreased from 4,290 to 3,765 since 2010. Of these, 343 closed, 174 were transferred to community groups and 58 were outsourced.

Lancashire County Council recently announced plans to close services, including library services, at more than 100 sites. Instead, it said it would establish 37 neighbourhood centres, which would provide library services alongside welfare and youth offending support.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has now said it will investigate the cuts to see if they constitute a breach of the authority’s duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

A report from Locality last year also said libraries should become “more enterprising” to meet financial pressures.

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