1 Feb 2017

Review of A&SL’s screening of The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas

*Guest post by Amye Quigley, Executive Librarian, Wicklow County Council Library Service*

On 3rd December 2016 the A&SL Section screened the documentary The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas by filmmaker and poet Greta Bellamacina and journalist Davina Catt. The documentary investigates the history of British public libraries and their decline in present day Britain. The documentary chronicles the beginnings of the public lending library in Scotland in the 18th Century and explores the important place that the library had in British society. The filmmakers interviewed many well known personalities such as Stephen Fry, John Cooper Clarke, Irvine Welsh and William Seighart to discuss what public libraries mean to them. The documentary is essentially a love story to public libraries and a plea to politicians to save Britain’s libraries from further cuts.

The A&SL organised for the filmmakers to attend the screening and afterwards there was a Q&A session which was quite interesting. There weren’t many other public librarians in the audience. Having watched the documentary and listened to Greta and Davina speak of their love of libraries, the process of making this film, and their efforts to interview various personalities, I felt profoundly sad and at the same time annoyed. Libraries in the UK are facing the biggest crisis of their histories. According to the BBC over 8000 library jobs have disappeared in the last six years in the UK. In many areas the councils have turned libraries completely over to volunteers, but without proper structure and a qualified librarian to organise and run these libraries they have been slowly closing. Annual visits to libraries in the UK decreased by 14% in 2015 and by up to as much as 21% in more deprived areas. Politicians use this kind of information as excuses to close even further libraries. But of course visits to libraries decrease if hours are reduced to volunteer-only run libraries. Funding to libraries has been cut by £25m in 2015/2016 which brings to 14% the reduction in total net expenditure since 2011. That amounts to about 5p to 9p per head of population spent on stock. Compare this to the €3.77 per capita target as laid out by Opportunities for All for Irish libraries. If funding into resources isn’t being made available, then this contributes to the decrease in visitors to the service too.

Here in Ireland, Opportunities for All, the national library strategy is coming to an end. There are some interesting and possibly difficult times ahead for public libraries with a new national library strategy on the way. In the past few months the public library service has been in the national newspapers with the My Open Library service and also with the new national tender for stock. Public librarians have voted against the roll out of the My Open Library service across the country. Booksellers have appealed the decision of the national tender. My Open Library is going ahead in some counties while others are delaying the implementation. The library service does need future-proofing and Opportunities for All steered the way for many great initiatives, such as all library services having access to the same e-resources and a new library management system which our borrowers love. Longer opening hours should probably be part of the next library strategy, but library staff fear that staffless hours could lead to additional unstaffed hours. What’s to stop a council from deciding to keep a small solo-librarian branch open staffless after the librarian retires? We say it won’t happen, we say we treasure our public library service, but certain cross sections of our society won’t use a staffless library and with a reduction in usage, will those branches be kept open? Watching The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas wouldn’t give you much hope.


BBC, Libraries lose a quarter of staff as hundreds close. London: BBC News, 2016. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-35707956 Accessed 04 Jan 2017.

Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, Spending on local libraries falls by £25m. CIPFA, 2016. Available at: http://www.cipfa.org/about-cipfa/press-office/latest-press-releases/spending-on-local-libraries-falls-by-%C2%A325m Accessed: 6 Jan. 2017.

Clarke, Vivienne, Staffless libraries ‘not there to replace workers’ – Simon Coveney. Dublin: The Irish Times, 2017. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/staffless-libraries-not-there-to-replace-workers-simon-coveney-1.2931610 Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.

Cowdrey, Katherine, Irish Booksellers demand rethink on library tenders. The Bookseller, 2016. Available at: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/irish-booksellers-manifesto-asks-gov-rethink-national-library-tenders-343706 Accessed: 04 Jan. 2017.

The Decline and Fall of British Libraries, Library Journal, 2015.  Available at: http://lj.libraryjournal.com/blogs/annoyedlibrarian/2015/02/09/the-decline-and-fall-of-british-libraries/ Accessed: 06 Jan. 2017.

Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Independent Library Report For England. London: Department for Culture, Media & Sport, 2014. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/388989/Independent_Library_Report-_18_December.pdf Accessed: 4 Jan. 2017.

The Irish Times, Librarians vote against rollout of staffless libraries. Dublin: The Irish Times, 2016. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/librarians-vote-against-rollout-of-staffless-libraries-1.2889720 Accessed: 06 Jan. 2017.

Local Government Management Agency, “My Open Library” Service. Dublin: LGMA, 2016. Available at: http://www.lgcsb.ie/en/news/my-open-library-service-welcomed Accessed: 8 Jan. 2017.

Local Government Management Agency, Opportunities for All: A Strategy for Public Libraries 2013-2017. Dublin : Department of the Environment, Community, and Local Government, 2013. Available at: http://www.lgma.ie/sites/default/files/public_libraries_strategy_2013_2017.pdf Accessed: 8 Jan. 2017.


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