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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

June 14, 2011



Public services not pub libraries

Pubs and books go together somehow. Using shelves of books as a design feature is a bit corny but it hasn’t really gone out of fashion – except, thankfully, the fake books. And taking a book to read over a quiet pint, especially when on holiday, is one of life’s great pleasures.

Now the government’s Future Libraries Programme has suggested pubs might go further and help replace the more than one in 10 public libraries that are closing around the country.

After this story appeared I was contacted by a worried librarian friend. He’s part of a group called Voices for the Library.

“We're quite sceptical about the idea,” he said. “Not from any sort of puritan perspective, rather that a public service is being dismantled and pubs being presented as places where Big Society volunteers can take the place of a properly funded public service.”

In recent years a lot of local pubs have been setting aside a corner of the bar for a kind of informal library where regulars can come and borrow a book, often for a small charitable donation. It’s all part of the service.

And where people have taken over a threatened village pub to run it themselves a mini-library has frequently come into mix, alongside a shop and a post office. It makes sense in remote rural communities miles from the nearest town where a pub needs to diversify to be relevant and commercially viable.

But Voices from the Library is right to be wary of this latest initiative. The concept of the Big Society, as elaborated by Cameron and his crew, is no more than a con trick designed to distract attention from the government’s assault on public services.

In this context, rather than being a bid to save libraries, suggesting that pubs can host them only makes it easier for local authorities to close libraries down by claiming to have found a ‘solution’.

Pubs can’t possibly operate a proper library service, and hopefully licensees will see through this scam. My librarian friend doubts they will. “I know that the licensed trade are probably not great supporters of public services,” he says. But I’m not sure that’s true. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

The success of a good community pub relies on the health of the community around it, and in a modern society that relies on a fully-functioning professional state, not a haphazard patchwork of volunteers, however good a job they might be doing and however imperfect the state’s effort might be.

Pubs should be joining the campaigns to defend our public services. Not trying to substitute for them.

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