‘That this Assembly expresses great concern about the reduction in the opening hours of small community libraries which will curtail their ability to deliver an efficient and effective service; and calls on the Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure to take action to ensure that the excellent service provided by these libraries is maintained.’
Mr McGimpsey: I thank the proposer and seconder of the motion. It is apposite and important that we discuss this issue and, indeed, the amendment today.
Ms Ruane suggested that this is perhaps a premature debate. I do not believe that it is, and I base that on what happened in Belfast last year, when 14 libraries were looked at and 10 were shut, some of which were in the most disadvantaged communities in Belfast such as Sandy Row, Andersonstown, Whitewell, the Braniel and the Belvoir estate. Therefore, it is very important that the House marks and puts its view forward.
Libraries are an important community resource in a number of ways, not least because the original design was to make books available to the population. Books are expensive, and disadvantaged communities and those facing poverty are not able to afford books in the household. Libraries provide that access. That was understood 100 years ago, and, at that time, the construction of the Carnegie libraries played a huge part in ensuring the literacy of our population. Those libraries have continued to deliver that service ever since. It remains an important factor that households that do not have the disposable income readily to buy books, which are expensive, have access through libraries.
It is not simply about books; it is also about new technologies. A number of homes do not have computers for their children as they grow up, and those children are, therefore, at a disadvantage vis-à-vis those in more fortunate households. There is also an issue with the age of the population in the Belvoir estate, where the library was shut last year. Its population has a high proportion of elderly people who used the library and the books. However, they were also able to access computers — the so-called silver surfers — and the internet and avail themselves of the advantages of that resource. There are issues in a number of areas where libraries continue to provide an important service. They are not something of the past but are very much of the present and the future.
I can go only by our experience in Belfast in places such as Sandy Row, where the library hours were reduced to save money, the visits were reduced to match the library hours, the library hours and staff numbers were reduced to match the opening hours and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is what happened in Belvoir, Sandy Row and other libraries.
I realise that there is a different regime in DCAL, and I see that, of the 10 libraries under threat, eight are under review. I welcome that, and I acknowledge the Minister’s role. She is bound to have had a role in that, bearing in mind that libraries and Libraries NI are 100% funded by the Department. However, I have a concern that, as we look to keep libraries open, that is not the whole story. We need opening hours that are adequate to deliver the service to ensure that visitor numbers stay up and the local community is properly served. I am not a particular fan of mobile libraries, and I have noticed that, although Belfast gets mobile libraries a couple of hours a week or a fortnight to try to plug the gap, the local community has difficulty accessing them. I do not believe that they are in any way, shape or form a proper substitute for a library in position.
I realise that we are in challenging budgetary times, and that is why my party and I voted against the Budget. You are now looking at the consequences of the Budget that was voted through. There is not enough money to run the service and the system, and we are into prioritisation. On the issue of an urban/rural divide, closing 10 out of 14 libraries in Belfast and saving eight out 10 in rural areas —
That appears to be something of a rural/urban divide. I am not for a second arguing that any library should close in a rural area. In fact, we should look to keep as much as possible of our resources together and functioning.