Drop the unfair library charge

Cambridgeshire County Council announced last week that it plans to introduce a reservation fee of £1 for all adult library users from 13 June. As a result, users who are not able to travel into the centre of Cambridge but instead request books to collect at their nearest branch will in practice no longer have access to a free public library service.

Much like last year's attempt to charge for study space on the top floor of Cambridge Central Library once it had been occupied by Regus/Kora,* this policy will result in two different levels of service, one for the wealthy and another for the rest of us. A £1 charge per item quickly adds up to more money than many library users can afford. Making access dependent on income contradicts the ethos of public libraries, which were founded on the principle of universal, equal provision, and instead turns them into institutions that only perpetuate the inequality we find in society at large. While Cambridgeshire County Council may not be the first to charge for reservations, there is no reason for it to join a race to commercialize library services.

Again like last year's Regus/Kora scandal, this decision appears to have been sneaked past Cambridgeshire residents. In February this year, the Council held a consultation with no mention of the policy (see its report Library Consultation on Savings Proposals for 2016/17). We were told about plans to 'reduce opening hours at the seven largest libraries in the county' and for a 'reduction of £200,000 from the spend on new library stock', but not about plans to charge for what is for many of us an essential part of how we use libraries. Rather than presenting library users with an accomplished fact, why didn't the Council give us a say beforehand?

Reducing the money spent on new stock only adds to the impact of this proposed new fee, as libraries across Cambridgeshire will accede fewer books. Reservations may seem like a luxury, but what will the charges mean for those of us who are pensioners, or jobseekers, or adult students? For those of us who are immigrants studying for the Life in the UK test? For those of us who who are struggling with mental health issues and need books about coping with our conditions? Or for those of us who live in rural areas with increasingly poorly-stocked small libraries? We and others may need books that aren't available at the only library we can reach. Austerity cuts make a unified library service that is freely accessible to all Cambridgeshire residents more important than ever.

Driving people away with unreasonable fees cannot make up for a shrinking budget, but for many of us, using public libraries as we do now will become too expensive. This concerns us not only as a matter of justice and equality, but also because it feeds into a false political narrative. Only a few weeks ago the prime minister David Cameron explained to a child that 'technological change' had made libraries less important. In reality, falling library usage is the result of defunding – which makes it harder for libraries to offer what people need, and forces measures such as cuts to opening hours which make it harder for people to use them – but if we allow the politicians responsible to spin us the story that libraries are obsolete, that result becomes a justification for further defunding. A £1 reservation fee will undoubtedly affect usage, especially in smaller libraries. What next for these libraries? Will the Council close their doors in the next round of cuts, claiming that the numbers prove they are no longer needed?

Once again it's time for library users to organize to defend their services, in the Cambridge People's Assembly and elsewhere. Our demand must be that Cambridgeshire County Council should drop completely these unfair charges.

Cambridge People's Assembly

29 May 2016

* In 2015 Cambridgeshire County Council attempted to lease a large part of the third floor of Cambridge Central Library to the private company Kora, part of the Regus Group, which planned to open an 'Enterprise Centre' with micro-rented office facilities. The third-floor study spaces retained by the Central Library would themselves have been rented to library users.

Despite massive public protest, including a petition by just under 4,000 residents, the Council only abandoned its attempt after the local blogger Phil Rodgers showed that the managing director of the Luxembourg-based Regus/Kora, Roger Perrin, was disqualified from directing companies in Britain (see Phil's post 'Questions About Regus/Kora'). The Council had previously argued the privatization had to be pushed through to avoid 'reputational risk' with Kora (see its report Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre, page 5).

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