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Home » Editor's Pick, Features

Reading Between The Lines

Published by on Wednesday, 21 October 2009One Comment

Councillor David SmithIt’s difficult for the council to deal in detail with all Christopher Hawtree’s frequent criticisms for the simple reason he appears to have more time to complain than the council will ever have to respond.

But we won’t apologise for having to spend most of our days on people considerably more needy than Mr Hawtree.
If I can make one general response it’s that readers should treat his claims with scepticism.  His love of literary fiction seems to mean his observations are often rather weak on fact.

He says there has been much national publicity about lack of stock – in Jubilee Library in particular.   Well, readers might like to know Mr Hawtree is a journalist who often works for national newspapers. People with friends in such high places are more likely to get their views covered in the national press.  It doesn’t mean the targets of their campaigns are actually doing anything wrong.

He cites Rachel Cooke in the Observer giving much space to the Jubilee Library in an article about libraries being run down.  He doesn’t say that the paper published our correction in its letters page rebutting Mr Hawtree’s groundless claim in the article that the Jubilee Library had ‘no Dickens’.  In fact, it has lots.

More space was taken up in the article with a claim that sci-fi and crime books had “disappeared”.  In fact even a fairly lame cop could detect them in the “fiction” section.  And yet more space was wasted on a claim the Library had no biographies section – giving the impression we had no biographies. In fact we’ve always had a good collection.

Where do these national papers get their information? Three guesses.

Mr Hawtree is currently being taken to task on the internet for claiming Oxford’s library has “no Arnold Bennett at all”, when it does.  A blogger on the Good Library Blog describes this as a “cheap slur” and criticises Mr Hawtree for basing his comments on “second hand tittle-tattle and a lack of research”.  Not good for a journalist.  Mr Hawtree apologises on the same site.

And the idea that a library’s books should be “no older than 6-7 years” is certainly not ours and not practice within Brighton & Hove – despite the impression given. So there’s a pattern here.

The constant claim that we don’t have enough books cannot be justified.  According to the latest CIPFA statistics, we have 1871 books per 1000 population, compared with an average of 1601 for our nearest statistical neighbours  - i.e. similar authorities.  We are the third highest of this group.  We have lots of books because we have a great many more libraries than most places – 16 in all.

Not all our books are in the Jubilee Library, nor should they be.  We aim to give people out in the neighbourhoods access to books too.  However the Jubilee library has been a huge success and it is now the fifth busiest in the country, with visits and library use increasing.

No councils have limitless supplies of money.  We have to balance spending money on libraries with providing services for disabled or elderly people or children.  Not everyone will agree with our spending decisions but they are taken openly and in good faith.

As a well-read person, Mr Hawtree should realise life’s a lot more complicated than just demanding “more” like a latter-day Oliver Twist – especially when we already have more than most. 

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One Comment »

  • Tim Coates says:

    The effort that members of the public have had to make in the past decade to persuade councillors all over the country that good libraries need good book collections has been substantial. We have been through a time when those responsible for the public library service have proclaimed a belief that all books and what is written in them are freely avaiable on the internet and that there is a whole new generation of people who are just not interested in reading, because ‘information’ is now available electronically.

    In other words there has been an astonishing amount of nonsense and misunderstanding about why books are important and why and how libraries fill an essential role even in the smallest local communities. This deliberate distortion of reality has led in it turn to a most dramatic reduction in numbers of books in libraries and the emphasis placed by librarians on keeping their collections complete and up to date. Across the country, in a decade we have reduced the numbers of books available for lending in libraries by 20m – out of 100m.

    In Brighton and Hove there was a time when it was believed that a new library operating as a ‘learning centre’ would replace the need for libraries and the plans went so far as to have timetabled the closure of Hove library.

    Councillors in Brighton did not argue to stop this; councillors did not raise public petitions; councillors did not alert local schools and parents and all the local people; Councillors did not write endless letters to the local press and national media and repeatedly raise concerns in council– it was Christopher Hawtree who alone did all those things. Christopher not only does understand the importance and value of being able to read what others have written, but has committed himself and all his ability, to arguing for the restoration of Brighton’s proper public library service. His solitary and brave stand in Hove and then in Brighton is rightly admired, not just in England, but around the world.

    Among the nonsense which Councillor Smith parades nationally is a sad and shameful disrespect for Mr Hawtree, who is one of his most honourable constituents. A library as large as the new Brighton library could never have enough literature. The suggestion shows an ignorance which ill-becomes a politician among whose responsibilities lies the provision of a library service to his people. Any examination of the way funds allocated for public libraries in Brighton and Hove shows that the small portion allocated for purchase of books is pathetic by any measure. If it happens to exceed the amount spent by other local councils, that is merely a reflection of the even greater shame that falls to them. It is most certainly not a matter for self congratulation of any kind. The Brighton library service has plenty of money and Councillor Smith’s job is to see that it spent properly. I would be delighted to show him how to do that and publicly, too.

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