Don’t be quiet please

Donald Morrison looks at the struggle to save our libraries

January 11, 2011
7 min read

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?

Modern libraries

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Lauren emphasises that despite vast amounts of information being available online, there are materials such as historical documents and reference books that are only available at libraries.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.

Local campaigns

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

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


65