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Ed Vaizey: you can run but you can’t hide (from the Women’s Institute)

Ed VaizeyEd Vaizey in more conspicuous times

When quizzed recently by a reporter from the Camden New Journal on library closures in the north London borough, cuture minister Ed Vaizey turned to his press officer and said: “I’m not sure what to do. Can I speak? You are here to protect me from things like this.”

This wasn’t unusual: Vaizey has refused to respond to questions on libraries from campaign groups around the country. Private Eye reported that out of 148 meetings between Vaizey and external groups recorded between May and December 2010, only one related to libraries. Yet he found time to meet:

Vaizey’s department is yet to intervene in a library dispute, despite several legal challenges being launched against councils believed to be in breach of their statutory duties, including those imposed by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

Map of libraries under threatUK libraries under threat
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Yet, as our map shows, the closures continue. Approximately 10% of the UK's libraries are currently under threat of closure, but campaigners fear that this figure will reach beyond 20% in the next year or so as more councils announce their budget plans.

In response, campaign groups continue to fight on a local level, with thousands-strong petitions, read-in protests and strong opposition to volunteer-only libraries, closures and cuts to opening hours being voiced at public meetings. Some campaigns have been successful – at least partially so. For example, North Yorkshire County Council has removed 15 libraries from its list of branches facing closure – though a further eight branches and 10 mobile libraries remain on the list.

Other councils have given their libraries a stay of execution while they wait for communities to step forward to take on the running of libraries with minimal or no council support. But many communities are simply unable to take on this responsibility due to the level of expertise, management experience and time involved in maintaining an effective library service – which means the future looks bleak for many local branches.

The good news is we have a new ally. Last week at its AGM, the Women's Institute voted to fight library closures, with 98% backing a motion stating: “This meeting urges H.M. Government to maintain support for libraries, as an essential local education and information resource.”

The 208,000-strong institute will now lobby government and work at a local level with campaigns around the UK. It will be supported by organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and Voices for the Library, whose members gave presentations and talks at WI meetings around the country in the run-up to the AGM.

Lauren Smith is a campaigner with Voices for the Library and co-ordinator of Save Doncaster Libraries. She blogs at Walk You Home.

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