The big meeting about arts funding is taking place today. In the meantime, some of the best arguments I’ve yet seen on the subject have been published on The Arts Desk. Read critics at the top of their game in dance, music and theatre battle out the issues.
I’ve been holding fire on all this because I want to see what the outcome of today is. So far, everyone seems to have a contrasting interpretation of what the ACE’s 29.6% funding cut will mean. The atmosphere is becoming fervid, partly because the one truth is that we don’t know what will happen, but fear blood. And it is very easy to focus on the wrong thing and then find that while you were worrying about your foot, someone has quietly removed your leg.
Take the furore the other week about the closure of the quango that distributes Public Lending Right. PLR – a few pence paid to the author whenever someone borrows their book from a library – is an important source of supplementary income for many writers. It’s not huge, but it’s useful, since most writers don’t earn as much as JK Rowling. Cries of alarm have gone up over the demolition of the distribution body, despite promises that its function will simply be transferred elsewhere. But very little has been said about a far more dangerous prospect: the almost certain running-down of the libraries that lend the books.
Libraries are funded by local authorities, whose cuts are going to be severe (I wonder how many councils will be reassured by the chancellor’s promise that they will be allowed to borrow money? Wasn’t the whole point of these cuts to reduce debt?). No council is likely to prioritise books over, for instance, care of the elderly and the repairing of dodgy pavements. Without libraries, there can be no PLR; therefore the issue of who distributes it becomes just a tad irrelevant.
Our local library is superbly run by a dedicated team who put their hearts and souls into providing all sorts of services: besides the issuing of books, and reminders when you’re tardy returning one, there’s storytelling for children, reading groups for grown-ups, computer access, audio books, DVDs, author talks that attract a devoted local following: indeed, it’s the nearest thing to a social centre that this area has. I would hope this particular library has a good chance of survival, being well operated and positioned in the middle of a bookish sort of suburb; it’s about to spend a good bit of money on new technology, for a start, which would be a terrible waste if it were to close. But this is a leafy bit of London Zone 3. The situation is very far from true in many other localities up and down the country.
There would, of course, be those who would argue in favour of a borough running fewer libraries but better ones, concentrating what money there is in creating one or two excellent centres with more new books and better general facilities (a similar principle to that applied to hospitals). I can appreciate this point, but hesitate to support it fully. An area needs to keep its own heart beating and public facilities like lending libraries and sports centres help to form that heart.