Major writers from Val McDermid to Ann Cleeves are lining up to fight for Orkneyâ€™s threatened mobile library, which brings books to readers in some of the UKâ€™s most remote locations.
Travelling to the islands of Stronsay and Shapinsay, Longhope and Westray, and a host of other locations across Orkneyâ€™s mainland and isles, the mobile service is facing a reduction in funding of Â£25,000, after Orkney Islands council agreed to find Â£1.4m in savings following its own drop in funding. The council said today that this could mean â€œreducing visits to each destination served by the mobile library service to once every two months, rather than once a month as at presentâ€.
Author Alison Miller, who grew up in Orkney, has launched a petition protesting against the cuts and calling on Orkney Islands council to maintain the service at its current level. It has already drawn the support of the writers McDermid, Cleeves, Louise Welsh and Lin Anderson, as well as hundreds of readers.
Pointing out that Orkney library has won both library of the year and librarian of the year, as well as landing a recent surprise visit from JK Rowling, who dropped in on its crime book club Saturday Slaughters, Miller writes in her petition that â€œbehind the scenes the service is being erodedâ€.
â€œThough social media connects more folk to the library via the internet, those who take the service to the places far from the main library buildings bring not only books, CDs, DVDs, but the sense that those they serve are part of the wider community; that they matter; that they are not forgotten; that it is possible to live in an outlying place and not be isolated, to have a real connection to the centre. It is an essential service. It encourages reading in young and old alike. A reduction will damage communities and leave them impoverished,â€ says the petition.
People on the islands, said Miller, â€œstill look for the mobile library to keep them connectedâ€ and â€œfor that you need people â€“ Betty, John and Simon â€“ who drive the van on and off ferries to the appointed places on the pier, outside schools, by the roadside; who bring folk the books theyâ€™ve requested, stand and chat while borrowers browse, stamp books, advise on whatâ€™s available in different genres. They bring cheer and news from Kirkwall, as well as books. At the schools, the bairns pour on to the van all excited, getting to choose their reading material. Older people, less mobile themselves, donâ€™t need to make long journeys into Kirkwall for books.â€
Miller admitted that with its reduced budged, Orkney Islands council has â€œhard choicesâ€ to make. â€œBut library services are too often seen as â€˜softâ€™ services â€“ like the arts â€“ and easy to cut. A glance down the comments from people who have signed the petition will show that theyâ€™re much more important than that. People talk about the mobile library being essential to those affected by isolation, physical incapacity, poverty, lack of transport and about the positive impact reading has on mental health and wellbeing, as well as the more expected benefits to education and literacy.â€
Cleeves, bestselling author of the Shetland and Vera novels, said that â€œthereâ€™s a danger when we talk about cuts to library services that we focus our fight on saving the buildingsâ€. â€œFor readers in rural communities, the books and the staff are a vital life-line and, often, the only access to the written word,â€ said the novelist. â€œIn 2014 I was part of 24/24 – a challenge to run reading events in 24 islands in Orkney and Shetland in 24 hours. Itâ€™s sad that less than two years after this celebration of community literary services, Orkney should consider cuts to its award-winning service.â€
In a statement, Orkney Islands council said that â€œa great deal of effort has gone into finding ways to lessen the impact of the savings we need to make, but inevitably council services will be affectedâ€.
â€œThe library and archive service is highly valued by the council and the Orkney community. But as part of the budget setting process, one of the difficult decisions taken was to reduce funding for the mobile library service by Â£25,000,â€ said the council. â€œWe are currently discussing how this will be achieved.â€
It said that it remained â€œfully committed to providing a mobile library serviceâ€, with any changes to visiting schedules to be phased in over the late summer.
â€œWe will keep customers fully informed and provide advice on other ways to access books and other materials between visits,â€ said the council.