Let's get one thing straight, libraries are about more than just books. Not that books aren't important, of course they are, but on an average day a library worker might help write a CV, explain how to set up an email account, unearth that crucial newspaper article for a piece of homework or research, give out advice leaflets on anything from debt to bereavement to addiction, provide a sympathetic ear for the lonely, elderly, mentally ill or vulnerable, give directions to the local Citizens Advice Bureau (if you're lucky enough to have any left in your town...) and find free ESOL classes for asylum seekers or refugees. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
All of the above aren't nice, neat, quantifiable actions - they don't make good statistics, despite the fact that they can make a massive difference to peoples lives. In the messy reality of day-to-day life the function of the public library in our society defies all attempts to reduce it to merely economic terms. But this is precisely what the government is trying to do, not just to libraries but to the whole welfare state. They would have us believe that the entire worth of the public sector can be calculated from what we spend against what we earn, from and for the public purse – a 'value for money culture' in the words of the 2010 Conservative manifesto. To attempt to counter this argument in purely economic terms is to fall into the neoliberal trap, to tacitly acknoweldge that if it isn't making a profit, then clearly it isn't worth doing.
In Sheffield, at the time of writing, we don't know how the axe will fall precisely. We do know that from a library budget of £8.5 million, we will be expected to cut £2.5 million. Half of that amount will be cut in the first year, and a quarter in each of the following two years - a phenomenon known as front-loading. This method of imposing an irreversible restructuring of services is precisely why we in Sheffield have started to fight back now, before the exact nature of the cuts are announced.
In mid-November a small group of library workers formed Library Workers For A Brighter Future. We set out five main points around which to base our resistance to the cuts:
1. Libraries are an essential part of a vibrant community.
2. The cuts announced by the current government, and supported to a large extent by the opposition, are a threat to the future of libraries.
3. This effects everybody who works in libraries, both temporary and permanent staff.
4. This threat to libraries is a threat to our communities as a whole, including other public services.
5. Library Workers For A Brighter Future has been set up not only to oppose the cuts, but to explore the alternatives and map a brighter future for public libraries and the communities they serve in Sheffield.
Initially we wanted to get people talking about the issues in the workplace, making the links between the plight of libraries and that of other services and encouraging others to realise that there is nothing inevitable about these cuts. In order to highlight the good work libraries do we also decided to try and organise events – nothing controversial, just writing workshops or story-times in community libraries, the kind of thing libraries do everyday but that don't normally get a lot of attention. The first of these, a creative writing workshop for children to be run by poet, broadcaster and comedian Ian McMillan, was refused permission to go ahead on the grounds that the Council were worried about potential 'political comments'. For our next 'event', we didn't ask permission.
Saturday 5th February marked the first national day of action for libraries. Sheffield Central Library was amongst those swamped by concerned library users. The plan for the day? A mass 'Shhh!', followed by three cheers for the library and as much book borrowing as we were allowed. The action was a huge success, with wide support amongst staff and a great turnout considering the miserable weather, and we anticipate more of its kind as the cuts are announced.
If we lose public libraries it isn't just books that we lose, but also a lifeline for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society just when we need it the most. At a time when, as we all know, it isn't just libraries that are in the firing line, we need to move beyond the traditional 'Save Our Library' campaign and make the links with the wider anti-cuts movement. The fight to save our public libraries is vitally important, but it is just one facet of the fight against the neoliberal policies of a government determined to put profit before people.
Library Workers For A Brighter Future