Why I... believe we should go to court to save public libraries

May 14, 1999

Tom Selwyn

Professor of anthropology at the University of North London and chair of the Camden Public Library Users' Group, which is challenging Camden Council's plans to close branch libraries.

As local government faces financial constraints, public libraries have come under threat. Some councils have announced plans to close branch libraries - in the teeth of vociferous opposition.

In the London boroughs of Islington and Haringey, readers' protests have led councils to think again and closure plans are now on hold. Unfortunately, so far, this has not happened in Camden, where there are also plans to close libraries.

We, as a group of readers with a lot of support, are prepared to take the fight to save branch libraries to court if necessary.

Under the Libraries and Museums Act, local authorities are obliged to provide "an efficient and comprehensive library service". The act also states that if people feel the local authority is not doing this, then they can appeal to the Secretary of State to intervene and set up a local inquiry.

The Camden Public Library Users Group, which I chair, submitted a formal complaint in early April. We have warned that our next step will be to demand a judicial review because we feel that Camden Council is rushing through the closure plans.

The government is keen to promote lifelong learning and branch libraries are well placed to help realise this goal. It is no good replacing them with fewer and larger buildings. Branch libraries are welcoming to people outside mainstream education - we should be equipping them with new technology not talking of shutting them down.

I think it is important for academics to back local moves to keep branch libraries open. In Camden, we think the Department of Media, Culture and Sport should take what we are doing as an opportunity, not a threat. Closing branch libraries is an extraordinary example of false accounting.

People go there to get information and feel supported. They would have to go elsewhere if branch libraries closed down, putting more pressure on services such as health and welfare. Shutting them down just does not make sense.

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