Tuesday, 13 March 2012

SPEAK UP FOR LIBRARIES, March 13th, 2012

Central Hall is a big, grand, central government building. It felt like venturing into the illicit unknown – even more so upon entrance when I saw all the stone staircase, holy gilded décor and paintings. When I asked a smartly dressed attendance (in Conservative blue) if this was the place the libraries rally was taking place, he replied as if irked, with: ‘Unfortunately’. In retrospect, this was a good thing, it means that feathers were ruffled!

The steps curved magnificently, it was quite a feeling to be traversing them. On the third floor, I found the hall where the rally was taking place. Banners were in abundance, decking the banisters of the upper hall: SAVE SUFFOLK LIBRARIES, KEEP LIBRARIES OPEN, etc. It was much more of a sit down and listen to speeches/watch films day of events than anything like a protest march. When I first arrived, Kate Mosse (author not model!) was talking passionately about library conservation and future generations.

I noted down some pertinent facts from the day, which I want to report here:

·                    More people use libraries per week, than go to Premiere League football matches – or go to the cinema.

·                    If the service is run down, people won’t use it – if they don’t use it, local councils can use that as reason to shut it down completely.

·                    4million children in this country don’t own a book.

·                    1 in 6 adults is functionally illiterate.

It was also reported that 2,000 library staff have been lost in the last year, and that libraries consume less than 2 per cent of local council budgets, yet are being hit incredibly hard. Two libraries per week are closed or given over to be entirely volunteer run.

There were speakers from many supportive important organisations, from the Women’s Institute to CILIP to Unison.
Other speakers included Dan Jarvis MP for Barnsley Central, and the Shadow Culture Minister, and my personal favourite Ian Anstice of the excellent and thorough Public Libraries News blog – I have been following this blog for over a year, and it covers national news about libraries, good and bad – it seems inexhaustive, it is expertly done, and I doff my hat to his incredibly hard work that must consume much of his life. He also manages a public library, though understandably did not make it publicly known which. I was really moved when he said that libraries are every bit vital frontline services as hospitals. He mentioned how many often in his day customers approach him with concerns about the library’s future and how they could not live without it – one guy said he would commit suicide without his local library. But councils only know how to number crunch, I think, and it’s all quantative not qualitative, and nothing to do with caring.

Ian Clark from Voices for the Library, another great online campaign I have been following for over a year, gave a rousing speech also. He highlighted how children are affected by the losses/potential losses – those from poor backgrounds being left without access to books, and yet the government wants every child in the UK to read 50 books a year!

Andrew Coburn and Laura Swaffield were introduced, from The Library Campaign, which has a marvellous magazine full of important current issues related to libraries in crisis. I did not realise, but this is a registered charities – set up 30 years ago, when the Conservatives were doing similar shameful practices. They pointed out that even councils who are not closing libraries should be monitored under suspicion as it could get overlooked where else they are making the cuts to libraries which are seen as ‘soft targets’. Laura was really animated about the cause – she said that libraries are an essential service in a rich country; something that a customer once said to me when I was a library assistant in a public library last year.

Alan Gibbons chaired the whole event, and he was inspiringly impassioned, outspoken, lively and committed to the cause. I have been following his blog over the last year or so, too. He is a children’s writer who has no financially vested interest (he, like many authors, doesn’t make much money from libraries) and is on board to champion the necessary nature of libraries in society. He profiled his background as being poor, parents who worked in a toilet factory (he joked that they were not ‘flushed’ with success), and libraries were his lifeline, how he got his voice, how he developed his intelligence and made strides in life. Alan is also involved in Campaign for The Book.

A musical interlude drew fits of laughter from younger members of the crowd - and there was a surprisingly low number of youth in attendance, there were many grey hairs in the rows of audience, and I had to wonder if these were people who had been working in the library service for decades and were now set to lose their jobs – because often it seems to be the older, trained, professional, brilliant actual librarians who are losing out on their entire life’s profession here.

One Man and His Beard came on in Wellington boots, sunglasses, and a heavy metal style band t-shirt and cap. He played barre chord punk and whined out immensely long atonal notes about libraries being cherished, necessary things. Perhaps if they installed this man in Ed Vaizey and David Cameron’s faces, they would agree to improving library services for all time, just to be rid of the sonic abuse. I’m sure he would not be insulted by me saying this, as I am sure this is the idea. Although, strangely; apparently, he is the man who saved BBC Radio 6Music!
The day of films and speeches wound down. But Alan told of how we could queue up outside the houses of Parliament to get a green card to meet our local MP to lobby them in person. 
The day got me thinking a lot. It suddenly dawned blindingly on me that I had been forced to leave my last library assistant job in a public library not just because of abusive, prejudice, and downright lazy management staff; but also in part because the restructuring to the service delivery/style - it had changed so completely that the pressure was suddenly without warning all on one member of staff (me), and it had sent me crackers as well as all the other incidents, bullying, unfair work distribution, unfair treatment, etc. But the library I worked in is not in my local borough and so I cannot write to or meet with the relevant MP. There is also the fact that complaining at the time would have got me into trouble with said job. I think many library workers must be in that position.

The library fight is not over, though, by any means.
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