Leeds City Council has announced that all fines for late returns of books have been dropped as of Monday 7th October in all 34 Leeds libraries and such fines will no longer be applied in the future. Although a seemingly administrative decision with an air of being cooked up in a marketing boardroom, the abolition of library fees is centred on the original socialist dream public libraries were founded upon as it removes the financial barrier to libraries’ resources, which can deter some from using them.
For the past few years, city and county councils nationwide have been buying into the new global ‘library culture’ of dropping fees. From Chicago to Oldham, libraries are in a bid to appeal more widely to their public. This development is also alongside others; such as the modernisation of resources found in libraries and community-centred classes and events. For the past decade in Britain, the decline of the public library has been documented: images and reports of local campaigns trying to save their libraries during the thick of Conservative Austerity have peppered our national consciousness. The Guardian reports that over 470 libraries have closed since 2010, which proves such campaigns have not been wholly successful. It is plain to see why our libraries want to reclaim the public’s interest.
The founding of the British Public Library is thanks to the activism of Victorian working-class Chartists, who envisioned a better existence for themselves and fought to achieve it. The removal of library fees can be said to reflect the socialist tradition of libraries as, simply, all financial obstacles are removed. According to an article published in the Guardian in 2016; although library use among adults has declined around 30% since the early 2000s, libraries still play a vital role in more ‘deprived’ communities. Access to a library is now, in Britain, almost considered as much as a birthright as a passport or free healthcare. Libraries, especially in urban environments, have done well to change the traditional perception that literature is exclusively for the consumption of the upper echelons of society. Gradually, the presence of libraries has made a significant impact on the consciousness of the ‘common people’ as they provide an accessible centre of education. To say the abolishing of these fees is what Chartists were striving for is, perhaps, dramatic however the importance of this shift in library administration should not be overlooked.
Naturally, when discussing developments within government institutions, cynicism flares up. There is the possibility that this decision to drop fees will do more harm to Leeds libraries than good as people may take advantage and, effectively, steal the resources provided to them, leaving no way for the libraries to recoup the losses. It is, perhaps, idealistic to trust in everyone to respect free resources and short-sighted to be without a deterrent. Does the romantic notion of this decision furthering the work of Victorian socialist activists distract from the reality of human nature? Maybe, but it is, at least, refreshing to witness decisions being made by governors to benefit the public.
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