Ed Miliband has rightly called the Con-Dems’ decision to close up to 350 libraries ‘cultural vandalism’. He got the phrase from children’s author Alan Gibbons who has achieved widespread support for his work in building a national campaign to oppose library closures, The Campaign for the Book.
The idea of councils saving money by closing libraries has been around for a while, and it was New Labour who put in the initial plans to shut libraries. Councils have been justifying their actions by building up a case that libraries are not that important to communities because fewer people are using them. Monitors have been ‘counting footfall’ and the figures are used to show that money being spent on libraries that are under used could be better spent elsewhere.
The argument is underhand and totally wrong. Library services have been whittled down over the past ten years. Over 1,000 full time librarians have lost their jobs; a new breed of managers is in place to demoralise staff and look for ‘inefficiency’; the de-skilling of staff has diminished the library service; and the withdrawal of many services offered by community libraries, such as putting on children’s and toddlers’ activities over the school holidays, has helped to decrease use.
The under-utilisation of libraries has been assisted by those who want to close them. The truth is that the value of libraries to a community cannot be measured by footfall nor the numbers of books borrowed. Libraries supply information and advice to a wide variety of users, through Internet use, books and newspapers, and the library service has been totally undervalued by councils in order to cut them.
This is part of an attack on the welfare state itself. As the author Philip Pullman has said about the attempt to replace librarians with volunteers, “The librarian is not simply a checkout clerk whose simple task could be done by anyone and need not be paid for. Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea, are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished.
“The hypocrisy of the current government over libraries is truly astonishing. Michael Gove has said that he is waging war on schools over literacy, and that primary schools who fail to get 60% pass rates in school SATs will face closure, privatisation or amalgamation with successful schools. There are alleged to be 13 such failing schools in Doncaster, where the council intends to shut 14 out of 26 libraries!
Public opinion is hugely against the Tory cuts, as Joyce Sheppard, a retired librarian and member of the Save Our Libraries campaign told the Guardian newspaper, “Doncaster is such a poor area, with low attainment in literacy, and these cuts matter”. In Doncaster the council is dedicating millions of pounds to build a ‘cultural quarter’ while they wreck cultural institutions like local libraries. Property developers gain and communities lose in a mad, profit driven frenzy.
The Tories are facing huge opposition from local campaigns, and it is tempting to see government actions as political suicide. However, there is clearly a dirty tricks campaign in operation. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech at the Tory conference was met with complete disinterest by his own supporters, and it has had virtually no take up nationally.
The Tories hope that by setting a very high figure for library closures they can get communities to absorb the rationale that cuts have to fall somewhere. They want us to rate the value of a library against the value of a school or leisure centre. Where library closures are met with opposition there will be the offer of keeping the library if it can be staffed by volunteers. In Buckinghamshire, 14 libraries could become volunteer-run; in Gloucestershire, 12 will be closed if volunteers do not step forward. Camden, Westminster, Oldham, Southampton and Cambridgeshire are among the councils whose plans include greater use of volunteer staff.
However, there now exists the real possibility of a meaningful national campaign against library closures. The threat to close three libraries in Doncaster has been met with some anger, but the decision to axe 14 out of 26 libraries is a declaration of war: in the same week it was revealed that the over-paid CEOs of Britain’s top companies are handing themselves salary increases of 50%.
Last Saturday’s petitioning in the town saw queues forming and massive anger from passersby. There have been Read-Ins at the libraries under threat in Doncaster and a pretty decent demonstration when the decision to reduce library provision under Labour was announced. There is to be another Read-In on 29th January at Doncaster Central Library and this time there is the possibility of a much bigger demonstration that can attract media attention. There is a national day of action planned the following week on 5th February, and the Doncaster event could be a launch pad for the national action.
Coalition of Resistance (COR) is pushing for a demonstration to the library through the town. The aim is to petition in the morning and then march at about 12.30 from Clock Corner (at the junction of Baxtergate and High street) to the Central Library in Waterdale. The Save Our Libraries group is working around the affected communities to draw people into the town centre.
Trade union activists in COR are looking to make real and significant contributions from their unions. Workers need to see that the best way to defend jobs is to fight the cuts to services. In this way the struggle for meaningful action from the unions against the cuts can be advanced. We are asking trade unionists and activists across the country to support the action on 29th January, as a prelude to making February a month of action that will build support for the TUC demo on 26th March.
We have to be absolutely clear that the Con-Dem’s policy of passing on the debt from the bankers to workers offers no prospect for economic recovery, and no stimulus to jobs. Their philistinism is based on class hatred as much as anything else. They despise working class people, and they sneer at the idea of working class communities needing culture through books and dedicated library workers.
They want to make us feel broken and hopeless so they can enrich themselves without fear of reprisals. The Tories fear a confident and educated working class that understands the depth of the crisis and confidently sees an available alternative. Our demonstrations aim to win a better library service, and a better used library service. We aim for greater participation in democracy and the community, leading to a better world than the one on offer now.
by John Westmoreland
To send a message of support, or to enquire about details of the demonstration on 29th January, e-mail John Sheppard, Treasurer, Save Our Libraries, at firstname.lastname@example.org.