The battle to save Bentham library

Protest meetings and read-ins supported by leading authors are being held to foil plans to close a North Yorkshire library. Terry Fletcher reports

Bentham isn’t really near anywhere. It is tucked away on the western fringe of Yorkshire, so far west in fact that its official postal address is actually in Lancashire and the local newspaper comes from Kendal in the Lake District. And that kind of isolation, say vocal campaigners, is precisely why their local library has to stay open. The building tucked away up an alley by the local primary school has been earmarked for closure by North Yorkshire County Council as part of a wide-ranging plan to save �2million.

Councillors want to shut down two dozen of their smaller libraries and take seven another mobile ones off the road. Instead they say that services should be concentrated in 18 ‘core’ libraries in the larger towns and cities such as York, Harrogate and Scarborough. Four out of five borrowers already use those buildings anyway and they account for 70 per cent of library ‘business’ across the county.

Against that background, they argue, small libraries in places like Bentham, a market town with only 3,500 residents are just too expensive to run at a time of public spending cutbacks. Each library user costs the council an average of �16.50 but in Bentham that figure jumps to �26.50 each.

But the opponents are determined to keep the building open and have already organised protest meetings and a ‘read-in’ at the library at which children dressed as fictional characters and campaigners each read out passages from their own favourite books. They have also recruited big name authors to support their cause and are planning a 12- mile protest march to Settle to demonstrate the impracticality of the plan to make that their ‘local’ library.

‘It is just not realistic for people to go to Settle,’ says campaign leader Irena Pritchard. ‘It’s almost 12 miles by road but to make matters worse there is no direct public transport. It would take three or four hours to get there just to change a library book. How are people without cars or the elderly supposed to do that? What are children supposed to do?

‘Bentham is a small place and on the very edge of the county but that is exactly why we need our library. Without it we would have no cultural centre and no public internet access. Unlike the big towns and cities, we don’t have internet caf�s so if people do not have computers at home they rely on the ones at the library. There is nowhere else for them to go, including the children who use the library computers to do their home work.’

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North Yorkshire’s own statistics show that almost 40 per cent of local children use the library as do a third of the over-55s. Mrs Pritchard is confident those figures would increase if the library were promoted more and its opening hours extended beyond the current four half day sessions a week. She adds that because it is outside the boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park the village is a target for developers looking for new building plots, which should increase number of borrowers using the library in future.

Playwright Alan Bennett, who has a home at Clapham, between Bentham and Settle, has lent his support to the campaign and said that closing libraries was like child abuse. Fellow author and Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel has also weighed in and said the plan would cast Bentham into ‘a cultural desert’.

She said: ‘Libraries are often the single institution that pulls towns and villages together. They are a channel of information and a source of delight. The closure of any public library is deplorable but Bentham is a particularly hard case. Literacy is the foundation of all education. Children are not inspired to read without wide access to books.’

One possible lifeline would be for the library to be run by volunteers, as already happens in small communities like Grassington and Hawes, but so far the Bentham campaigners have rejected that.

Mrs Pritchard said: ‘The council told us that places which refused would be more likely to be closed but that sounded a bit like blackmail. It is not that people here are not community minded they just did not like being forced into it.’

She added that there were also doubts about how a volunteer-run library would be paid for as well as a fear that if they volunteered it would virtually guarantee the withdrawal of council services.

She added that there was an argument that if libraries were to be volunteer-run they should be in the larger towns. With a bigger population to draw upon it should be easier to find sufficient helpers, she said. A final decision of the closures is expected either later this month or in May.

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