LIBRARIES: Where are the priorities?

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I would like to take the opportunity to respond to Coun Tyler’s recent letter. While I am pleased that the councillor has taken the time to respond at such length, I am afraid that her letter contains a number of half-truths and inaccuracies; more disturbingly for one entrusted with overseeing the library service, she fails to engage with the nature and purpose of the service itself.

She claims the county council has not closed one single library. This is not really true: a number of libraries – for example, those at Hadston, Ellington and Haydon Bridge – have in fact been handed over to volunteers to run and offer a much-reduced service. While they are not, therefore, technically ‘closed’, to all intents and purposes they are no longer county libraries.

She claims further that Morpeth library was in a ‘terrible condition’ after the 2008 floods and needed massive investment.

This is not an accurate picture as the library was substantially re-furbished from insurance money in the wake of the flood; it is my understanding that the damage later done to the building and to the service was more a result of poor decisions by structural engineers that led to a floor collapsing and decisions by those in charge to jettison huge numbers of books at a massive cost to the public purse.

I would invite Coun Tyler to look at the growing sheaf of complaints in the comments book held at Morpeth library, overwhelmingly negative.

A local student complains she now has no longer anywhere quiet to study; a nationally recognised author laments the loss of reference facilities to research; others label what Coun Tyler calls the new ‘more modern, fit for purpose’ library a ‘disgrace’ or angrily demand a refund on their council tax.

Meanwhile, the bizarre decision to house the nationally important Poetry Library in the Chantry, a building largely frequented by tourists and visitors to the town (and where the library itself is not actually staffed) mystifies all and sundry.

Why weren’t Customer Services placed in the Chantry, in the centre of town, close to where they once were on Bridge Street, and the Poetry Library on Manchester Street where library users might use it more?

More widely, Coun Tyler talks of ‘scaling down our estate’ and ‘generating capital revenue’, but any economist knows that no one ever got rich in the long term by selling off the family silver, and certainly not when all potential buyers know how desperate the vendor is to sell and can therefore buy at a rock-bottom price.

The economic reality is that operating any budget is about priorities: and spending tens of millions in building a new County Hall and purchasing Manor Walks Shopping Centre make very clear what this council’s priorities are.

Compared to the sums involved in those decisions, the amount spent on libraries is a mere drop in the ocean.

I am at a loss to understand her later reference to Ashington Leisure Centre: yes, as a regular user myself of the increasingly run-down Riverside, of course I cast an envious eye at Ashington’s new facilities – but the last time I looked, a leisure centre was not a library.

I know we live in the age of multi-tasking: but I am yet to see anyone swim a length while reading a book.

Peter Scaife