Library services are under threat on an unprecedented scale. The past decade has seen 80 libraries close – and many more are threatened. Between 1997 and 2007 the number of books borrowed from UK libraries fell by 34 per cent. And at least 850 professional librarians have lost their jobs as library staff are steadily deskilled.
The process is set to accelerate as local councils’ budgets are slashed as part of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s savage cuts. The so-called ‘Future Libraries Programme’ being pushed through by Tory minister Ed Vaizey threatens to transform public libraries into volunteer/self-service ‘hubs’, and will most likely see many eventually outsourced to the private sector.
In the age of Google, when swathes of information can be retrieved at the click of a button, does any of this really matter? Are libraries still important democratic institutions? And if so, what can we do to defend them?
According to Lauren Smith, passionate Doncaster librarian and member of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign group, ‘Libraries are more relevant and innovative than ever before. Especially in times of recession, libraries can be like sanctuaries where people can come and access information for free.’
Lauren emphasises that despite vast amounts of information being available online, there are materials such as historical documents and reference books that are only available at libraries. Indeed, a recent innovation in libraries is to have expensive software and subscription databases available free to members, including online databases such as family genealogy, NewsUK, and the Oxford/Grove online art and music encyclopedias.
Another innovation in libraries is their intention to reach out to those who can’t get to a library or don’t have the time. ‘Soon it may well be possible for members to download e-books from the library website. It will also be possible to download audiobooks straight to your iPod,’ says Lauren.
The advent of self-checkout points is a development that has freed librarians to spend more time engaging with the public and assisting with in-depth research. But this role is forgotten as councils look to the technology as an excuse to get rid of librarians altogether.
‘It is a worry that professional librarians are being phased out,’ says Lauren. ‘It is essential that libraries are run by qualified staff with the right ethical grounding to provide a wide and balanced variety of information to the public. If libraries are run solely by volunteers, or by private companies, the information provided and the training courses offered may become skewed and biased.’
Digital innovations and outreach are clearly expanding the library’s reach, yet the traditional library as a civic building is still important: ‘To many it is seen as the soft face of the council – a place to meet friends, learn, and access information about local community groups and events.’
Voices for libraries
The decline in library book borrowing does not necessarily signal a lack of interest in library services; rather, it indicates the different ways library services are now being used. The Voices for Libraries campaign website has an array of positive and often inspiring stories from library users. These include Mandy Phillips, who used her local library to educate herself:
‘I went to my local public library … and used the single computer to teach myself how to do basic word processing, spreadsheets and email. I took this back to college as evidence and gained a place on the course. It led to a degree in business information systems, and 10 years on I’m head of business and information systems at Liverpool John Moores University.’
There are many stories of how libraries have supported parents and excited children. One librarian writes:
‘A recently unemployed dad said that he had had to take his three-year-old daughter out of daycare nursery as the family could no longer afford the fees and he had watched her becoming more and more withdrawn. So the free reading challenge had been a lifeline for him, and to see his daughter coming out of herself once more was great.’
There is no doubt that libraries matter. They have a plethora of important purposes, and are used by people from all walks of life.
The government’s cuts are to reduce council budgets by 7.1 per cent a year over each of the next four years. Many councils are already scheming to starve libraries of funding or to close them completely. The Bookseller magazine has said that ‘libraries are under siege as never before’. Kent, Glasgow, London, Northern Ireland, Cambridgeshire, Wirral and many more areas have already seen closures, threats of closure and staff redundancies. A number of local campaigns are under way in their defence.
Unison, the union that represents many library staff, is one organisation at the forefront of this struggle under the positive banner ‘Love Your Library’. Many Unison library staff are taking to the streets to protest, petitioning and even striking in the defence of libraries. In May the Tory-led council in Southampton planned to replace six full-time staff with volunteers, leading Unison to hold four one-day strikes. The strikes were well supported, involving 10 out of the 11 libraries balloted.
Hampshire County Council has made a more drastic move, aiming to cut £2 million from library funding with the loss of 60 jobs. Local Unison rep Stephen Squibbs explains, ‘Over the last three years they have gotten rid of most professional librarians, replacing them with downgraded outreach centres; they have reduced the frequency of mobile libraries, even charging residential homes for their visits . . . We aim to build a broad campaign here and we are asking many local groups to support us.’ A widely-supported demo was held in Winchester in July.
Doncaster, an already deprived area, has had three libraries threatened with closure. After a lacklustre and inaccessible ‘consultation’, written only in English and buried in the depths of the council website, a decision will be made in January 2011. The Save Doncaster Libraries campaign has already held a large demonstration attended by several hundred and has set up an excellent blog and online petition (see box).
Lewisham, in south London, has also seen a heated local campaign as the council aims to close five libraries in the borough, claiming it will save £830,000. A large demonstration was held at a council meeting in September and during question time campaigners filled the public gallery, holding councillors’ feet to the fire. A decision looked set to be made in late November.
Many of these local campaigns are being supported by interlinking national groups such as the Library Campaign and the Campaign for the Book. Significantly, the latter organisation was set up by the award-winning children’s book writer Alan Gibbons. A number of other writers have also joined the campaign. ‘Our aim is to establish a network of authors, professional bodies, trade unions and local pressure groups to resist attacks on reading for pleasure,’ says Gibbons. ‘We aim to get maximum publicity and maximum coordination.’
This coordination is essential in the future, and must be linked to other anti‑cuts campaigns as part of the same essential struggle. The public library service, like state schools and a publicly funded NHS, is part of what makes a society civilised. This is now under threat.
For more information, see the thorough and up-to-date blog on the national library struggle from Save Doncaster Libraries at savedoncasterlibraries.wordpress.com. User experiences can be read and shared at www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk. A useful portal for campaigners across the UK is the Library Campaign, www.librarycampaign.com
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform