When Things 20 and 22 collide: the case of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I was saddened at the weekend when I was alerted via Twitter that most of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s libraries were under threat. On 10th November, both local papers, the Journal and the Evening Chronicle, carried detailed articles by Adrian Pearson in which we were told that”The vast majority of Newcastle’s 18 libraries will either be closed down or handed over to community groups as city chiefs set out £90m of cuts over the next three years. Only the newly-rebuilt city centre library is said to be safe from the axe.” One of the comments led me to a transcript of a Radio Four Today Programme interview from earlier in the year with Tony Durcan, head of Newcastle’s libraries, in which he “gave, at best, lukewarm support for the universal need for paid and qualified library staff”, offering the opinion that library work was “not brain surgery”. Well, other than brain surgery, nothing is, and it doesn’t hold out much hope for the libraries if this is the attitude of the boss. More hopeful is a pre-emptive campaign against the move by authors such as Alan Gibbons, Philip Pullman and Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson which has been covered in the Bookseller, BBC News, and the Guardian. Local anti-cuts campaign Coalition of Resistance is also taking up the fight.

So how does this relate to Things 20 and 22? Well, Thing 22 was about volunteering in which I stated my opposition to job substitution and handing libraries over to community groups in this way. Thing 20 was about Library Routes, and part of the post I wrote in 2010 for that project said of a library I visited as a child “I was intrigued by all the Browne tickets and wondered how on earth they ever found mine (especially as they seemed to be in a different place each time). The only time I remember asking for help was when we had a kitchen planning project for Cookery and the person I asked took me straight to the right shelf which I thought was very clever.” You’ve guessed, that is one of the libraries on Newcastle’s little list. My family lived in Fenham between 1968, when I was 11, and 1973. To go back to the Evening Chronicle article, I read that “Fenham’s library is one of those with an uncertain future. Mark Johnson, 85, a retired police officer, said he goes to the library three or four times a week to read the newspapers. He has been using the service for 40 years. “I’m very disappointed. They got rid of the pool too. I think it would have a very big impact on people around here.”” I must have overlapped with Mr Johnson, perhaps we queued up at the counter together and marvelled at the way the library staff could always find our tickets?

So this was the branch that first got me thinking about the methods of actually managing a library, starting me on the career path I later took. It also influenced my choice of degree subject – staff at Fenham never seemed to mind me using children’s tickets to take books out of the adult library. In those days, there wasn’t the fantastic choice of teenage literature that there is now, so I went through all the Agatha Christies that they had, then moved on to historical fiction. After that, I started taking out historical non-fiction and biographies which, coupled with a charismatic teacher, inspired me to study history at university. I can fairly say that Fenham Library shaped my life. Where are today’s young Geordies going to get that sort of experience if you close all the libraries now, Newcastle?

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Anabel Marsh

I'm a proud Glaswegian who loves to go gallivanting both at home and abroad. Join me in my travels, both historic and current. Credit where credit's due: photography mostly by my more talented other half, John.

6 thoughts on “When Things 20 and 22 collide: the case of Newcastle-upon-Tyne”

  1. I can’t disagree with the sentiment of your post, but Mr Durcan is first and foremost an officer of the council, acting in a paid capacity to undertake the wishes of the elected members. Even if he wanted to defend libraries, if Newcastle Council want to close them all, he can do nothing but publicly support and defend the action. That’s his job. I often see similar comments levied at SCL, but they’re all in the same position. I certainly don’t agree with the level of cuts being proposed in Newcastle or other councils, but the criticism aimed at the ‘chief’ is often unfair, as rarely will they have any other choice but to wield the axe the council hands them, or step down.

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    1. I didn’t have time to reply fully to Anonymous Caller’s comment last week. I agree entirely that a Chief Officer is a public servant and the politicians hold the purse strings and the power. We obviously can’t know how hard individuals fight against proposed cuts behind closed doors, and whether they then decide that damage limitation is the best they can do for their service. It’s one thing doing your job however, and another to make unflattering comments on your profession on the Today programme (and this was well before the current events in Newcastle). I don’t know if any Chief Officers have taken a stand on principle and resigned rather than make disproportionate cuts, although again, in their defence, they might be well paid but we don’t know what commitments they have. Many will be around the age where they have children at university with huge fees to pay for example. Resigning might be an honourable option but not necessarily an easy one. I’ve altered my last sentence to take the focus off Mr Durcan a bit. But I’m still not impressed!

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  2. Gateshead Council is also cutting their library service. They are planning to make five of our branch libraries community run, i.e. staffed by volunteers. I do not agree with handing libraries over to be run be unqualified volunteers, but I can’t bear the thought of my local library closing. My local library is in a ward which experiences higher unemployment levels than Gateshead as a whole (pretty bad, then!) with many homes not having access to the internet and presumably not enough money to buy books or e-readers.

    The library service is already not that great for someone who would like to explore more in the world of books than the latest fiction bestsellers, but Gateshead residents are lucky: we get to have Newcastle library cards too (well, in the current climate, not so lucky!).

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    1. I’m sorry to hear that. I’m based in Glasgow now, and so far we seem to be faring better up here. I don’t get down to Tyneside much these days, but when I do I’m impressed at the cultural renaissance that has taken place since I knew the area well. I don’t know about Gateshead, but Newcastle seems intent on cutting all its cultural spending, not just that on libraries. It seems so shortsighted – surely that brings in tourism which helps the local economy? Or do they just want the stag and hen night trade? I don’t know. Like you, I fear for communities without libraries. It’s not just books, report after report suggest that large percentages of the population, especially in deprived areas, don’t have Internet access at home. Yet they are trying to move everything online – and cutting one of the few public places that can help with digital inclusion. Good luck, I hope your library survives.

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