Ramshackle, state-of-the-art, vast or tiny, the one thing libraries have in common among their shelves of well-thumbed titles, is the ability to unlock a key to another world.
Long established as the lifeblood of many a community, they are also increasingly relied upon, not just as access to free books and information, but also vital sources of IT facilities, public meeting spaces and support networks.
But now they are under threat in Bristol as never before, with proposals on the table that could bring about the closure of 17 of the city’s 27 libraries in a bid to save £1.4m.
The council claims it is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Government-imposed austerity squeezes public services to breaking point. Mayor Marvin Rees has admitted communities are going to feel the impact of the cuts, saying there are ‘agonising choices’ to be made.
But the fact remains that once the dust has settled and the public purse is healthy once more, the library doors that have been closed, that granted access to a world of information for generations, are likely never to open again.
This is the fear of campaign group Love Bristol Libraries which has launched a petition calling on the council to rethink the ‘devastating cuts’ and halt the current consultation to enable people to put forward alternative proposals.
“Libraries are the lifeblood of our communities – a place where all ages, races and creeds can go to be entertained, informed or get involved with their community,” says the group’s Val Cobbin.
“From baby and toddler activities, to school children learning to read, to the elderly person who relies on the library for computer access and social contact, we know that libraries are vital for the wellbeing and success of our city. This is why we are so dismayed that Bristol City Council’s proposals.”
She added: “Our biggest worry is that once these libraries are closed and the land is sold off, we won’t get the service back, even when the current financial crisis passes.
“This is about the kind of society and resources we want to bequeath future generations of Bristol residents, about whether arts, education, culture and the wellbeing of our people are important to us as a city, and about whether a city as great as Bristol deserves a decent library service. Right now, the threat to our libraries has never been greater.”
Deputy mayor Asher Craig has said the proposals are not a done deal and the purpose of the consultation is to hear people’s views, which will help to inform the final decision.
“These proposals offer the opportunity to explore a range of possibilities which will transform the service, including where and how it is provided,” says Craig, adding that the council is open to suggestions, such as integrating libraries with other community services.
“Our options aim to provide a library service that best meets the needs of the whole city based on need and suitability.”
She argued the existing service was built decades ago and that the proposals draw on ‘robust evidence’ and assessments of current local needs.
Craig added: “We appreciate that local people are understandably protective of their local libraries. However, with a smaller budget and many of our libraries needing investment, the proposals we are putting forward will offer sustainable library services into the future that people across the city can access.”
She cited The Old Library in Eastville as an example of a success story whereby the community rallied to save it in the last round of cuts and have now established the premises as a volunteer-run hub.
But Emily Shimell, chair of South Lockleaze & Purdown Neighbourhood Group that was formed in order to take on the former Eastville Library, says the council should be wary of thinking a similar model can work in other places.
“We have the Old Library and it’s turned out really well,” Shimell told Bristol24/7. “The community has rallied together and it’s working, but it is a struggle.
“These cuts have taken away much more than a few books. We are rallying to put those services back in place and working as volunteers. It’s down to quite a few passionate people and without funding to back us, it is a concern. People have been really behind us for the first year, but it’s whether the support will continue for the next five to 10 years.
“I’m also concerned that the council will say it’s working here, so others can do it and that’s not necessarily the case. It’s not just about saving a library, it’s about getting a community around it.”
The council has put forward proposals based on a model that it says aims to provide an accessible library service to everyone across the city. The different options on the table are weighted according to criteria that includes the building’s sustainability, usage, community need and location.
Under the system, libraries of all shapes and sizes, from the brand new Bishopston facility on Gloucester Road, to the library on Whiteladies Road that has served Redland’s community for more than 100 years, could have funding withdrawn.
While staff are unable to comment on the proposals, a storm of protest has been mounting on their behalf and local groups have launched petitions in a bid to save the services.
A packed public meeting in Redland Library heard passionate pleas for action from outraged residents. Ward councillors encouraged people to participate in the consultation, but if they disagree with all of the options on the table, so state: ‘none of the above’.
Chair of the Friends of Redland Library group Eileen Lepine says: “Like all libraries today, Redland Library is about more than the books. This historic building now houses computers which are in constant use, reading groups, activities for children, space for meetings and much more. But the current council consultation offers very little hope for its future.”
Campaigners are calling on people in the city to unite and help to secure a future for a service that has helped so many people find the key to theirs.
Sian Norris, a Bristol-based writer and founder of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, says she wouldn’t be where she is today without public libraries.
“As a child, I grew up going to our local libraries here in Bristol. It was a cheap way for my mum to keep us kids entertained. When I was 16, I discovered a book in the Central Library called Paris Was A Woman. This book stayed with me throughout my life, and the women I read about in it inspired the book I’m writing today.
“Libraries are a vital resource for our communities. My own personal legacy is testament to that. But libraries also give people access to knowledge, to study space, to fellow readers. They are places where we can access the internet (particularly an issue for people struggling financially), find out about what’s happening in our area, watch films, listen to music, and, of course, read.
“The council is facing really hard decisions thanks to the cuts pushed upon them by central government (and I do think the blame needs to go back to central government). Libraries are an easy target.
“However, I would remind the government of the law – the Public Libraries Act of 1850 and The Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 enshrine the importance of these civic spaces. These acts have not been rescinded, and as long as they remain on the statute book the council has a duty to provide library services in the city.”
Have your say on the proposed cuts by taking part in the consultation before September 5: www.bristol.gov.uk/council-spending-performance/your-neighbourhood-consultation-2017