Why I am a library campaigner.

Up until December 2010 I would say I was more of a library supporter and library user than a library campaigner.

In fact if someone would’ve asked if I was a library campaigner I would have said that that was something someone else will do.  And blogging – I was just amazed that other people had time to blog.  All credit to them I thought, but it’s not for me.

I use the library a lot and I suppose the best I could say is I was a library supporter, because where I live, we have been trying to get our library, which isn’t open full time, moved to a better position.

It was in an inaccessible building on the bend in the road that runs through the centre of our town.  The narrow pavement in front of the old library meant that a parent with a pram had to block the pavement while they opened the top and bottom bolts on the old wooden double doors. Other people passing would have to step into the road while this was going on. Then, to turn the pushchair into the library, the parent had to back into the road, watching (because we are in rural West Somerset) in case a tractor going through town was on it’s way or checking that a bus  (hourly at the moment but facing cuts) wasn’t coming. Sometimes vehicles went on the pavement, which isn’t ideal, even if you are quite quick on your feet.

Inside the library there was space for one, maybe two prams but that was it. From the outside you couldn’t see in through the leaded windows.

Crowded and cramped, but well used and welcoming, the library was restricted in meeting its potential as a service to our community by those responsible for it.

The County Council eventually negotiated the move 20 metres across the road, into a shop in the square that had stood empty for years, with a wide pavement in front. I think that the negotiation took over four years. It might have been longer.

We had an extended period of the new library standing ready, fitted out and full of shelves, but no books, during early 2010. This was followed by a period with no library at all while the books were transferred from old to new. Then we looked through the windows at books on shelves, because it couldn’t open due to computer problems.

The opening took place six months ago. Little things made an immediate difference – the automatic door opening button improved traffic flows in and out, visible use of the library by all parts of the community, witnessed through clear windows, marketed what was inside. Library membership increased. One hundred and twenty five new members joined in the 6 months since the move, compared to twelve or so in the first half of the year. The move cost in the region of £66,000. And the old library building – well, the shop next door moved into it. That shop has better access around the corner, so they simply knocked through the wall and the old doors are now locked and unused.

We knew the County Council had been holding focus groups and that one of their promises was to make local Government smaller but we didn’t know that as a consequence of these promises and subsequent spending cuts that the Council would plan to lock the doors of our new library for good.

Like many communities across the UK our County Council’s Christmas present to us was an ultimatum – pay for and operate the library yourselves or it will close.

Now that might seem like a good idea, a community run library. As a community, like others, we are active in volunteering. In the summer our community runs, funds and operates an outdoor swimming pool for 4 months and all year round the ten parishes in the area are served by a volunteer run community radio station. We have scouts, guides, brownies and cubs; a community recreation ground; two schools with active PTFA’s and exchange links; the WI, Rotary and a local branch of the Royal British Legion. There are many other volunteers. Then there are retained firefighters and emergency first responders. Most people are doing their bit already and doing it at the same time as paying for the council to do theirs.

In our community library members are the biggest membership organisation – over 2500 people. The library isn’t just for members of course, so there are probably many more users who are not members. Visitors use our library for tourist information. The library is the main interaction that many people have with the County Council – using it is like using local county maintained roads – it is an infrastructure service for the whole community. And like the roads are vital to the well being of our county, so are the libraries. Whereas the roads help people on journeys of daily life our libraries contribute to the journey of life. From after school stories to homework; job seeking to new business research; book club borrowing to random browsing; or retirement reading to entrepreneurship, libraries are vital to different people at different times and to our society at all times, most especially in hard times.

Geert Hofstede wrote in ‘Cultures Consequences’ that ‘the stability of national cultures over long periods is achieved through constant reinforcement’, saying that societal norms reinforce the perception of what that society is. This perception is transferred from generation to generation in family, education and early life socialisation. Libraries in communities are a means of achieving this transfer. Libraries offer accurate knowledge or access to it at the heart of our communities, access to both sides of the story in an age of endless information, not press edits, Google ratings or political spin. When you go to a library you access the knowledge heritage of our nation to prepare for your future. Libraries help us all respond to Thomas Paine’s message from the eighteenth century. He said ‘every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require’.

But now this generation is witnessing a Government Minister sitting on his hands with his eyes closed waiting for 2000 requests for inquiries into 2000 out of 4500 closed libraries and cut mobile services before expecting the tax payer to foot the cost of those inquiries. That Minister, Ed Vaizey promised a Renaissance for Libraries but what his inaction will deliver beyond disproportionate cuts and small savings is immeasurable damage to the prospects of future generations. It also seems that the Prime Minister and his Deputy are either watching or are oblivious to the Minister presiding over local Councillors engaging in one of the most comprehensive attacks on innovation, knowledge, life long learning and culture that the UK has ever seen. Many MP’s remain silent.

When the late Pete Postlethwaite talked about ‘The Age of Stupid’ he thought the major battle in our new century was going to be the one for the environment. It might still be the major one, but the defining moment, which will determine when and how we win in the future, is now – the Battle for Knowledge. It was said of the Few in the Battle of Britain that some common and unassuming young men held the future of mankind in sweaty palms, and did not let go. We now understand how they were backed up by people from all walks of life from the Royal Observer Corps to the NAAFI wagon. That was their finest hour.

Will this be ours?

All around the country, what ever their political leanings, small groups of people are talking and questioning. They are asking, not what cuts are necessary, but what must be left intact for essential growth and what parts of our infrastructure are so important to us all that they should not be attacked in difficult times nor managed badly in good times.

When the Viscount Tonypandy left the speaker’s chair of the House of Commons in 1983 he entrusted Parliament, ‘the bastion of our democracy,’ to ‘defend the liberty of our nation’ and ‘to protect the heritage of our fathers’ –  these are the things he believed made the UK a ‘great parliamentary democracy’.  He was right and Parliamentarians have often stood at the forefront of the battle for truth in our democracy. But it goes further than that. If the bastion of our democracy cannot be trusted to protect a foundation of our culture, the real foundation of a great parliamentary democracy, the people, must be heard. At that point, ordinary people, from all walks of life, must act together aiming to achieve remarkable things. Without guarantee of success, without reward, just knowing that what they are doing is right and that it must be done.

Across the country the very same message about libraries is coming from one nation Conservatives campaigning alongside left wing activists and from people with little interest in politics or the press. With a single clear message from people from all walks of life common sense alone might dictate that Councillors and Ministers listen, understand and take a step back before acting.

As I read back over these personal views of mine I note how much I have been informed by visiting libraries. Without libraries I would not have encountered Paine or Hofstedte nor heard more of the voices of the Battle of Britain than my TV ever offered me.  So yes, it seems like thousands of others around the UK I am now a library campaigner. I just didn’t realise how important it was to stand and be counted as one until recently. Now I think it might just be one of the most important things I am ever asked to do. To stand up for knowledge, culture and society, not when it is threatened by external ideas or foreign power, but when it is being undermined from within by those we trusted to protect it and because we know how important it is to our common future.

Maya Angelou’s mother told her – if you are for the right thing, you do it without thinking. If a library means something more than just books to you, the call for a Public Library Service Inquiry is on Facebook or you can email at publiclibraryserviceinquiry@live.co.uk 

If the Government is not prepared to act – are you ready to hold the future in your hands? And not let it go?

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