Sunday, 23 October 2011

Yet another conference

At the moment Saturdays seem to be conference days. Today I was at the Library Campaign conference held in the University of London Student's Union, which was primarily aimed at people who were actively campaigning to prevent their local authorities shutting down libraries to save money. At first I was unsure if it was the right place to be. Currently I am not working in a library, and the libraries in my area are, for the time being, fairly safe. However, afterwards I thought that I was definitely in the right place at the right time, and I wished so much that I had finished my research just that little sooner, to add some weight behind the arguments of keeping public libraries open for the public.

It was really good to get find out at first hand exactly what lengths the Brent SOS group are going to in order to keep a facility that means a lot to their community. All night vigils, to prevent the boarding up of a building, (was it Kensal Rise or one of the other libraries? I forget which one they said) turning away the "Men in white vans", the contractors, who seem to be persuadable not to do the work. I admire their persistance Another surprising fact for me was that the communities themselves have to dig into their pockets to pay for the legal costs, and although they are not wealthy districts, people in the community are prepared to give money as well as time. Surely this must show how much value there is in a library service.  

I had not realised that the Doncaster group have been active for a number of years and one of the representatives there today was a previous retired head of the library service. It is a refreshing change to discover that a head of a library service is being militant. Doncaster has practically no qualified librarians in the service, which has been run down and underfunded for many years. The poor service does not attract customers, giving the local authority what they want, a reason to close libraries. One ray of hope is a recently appointed new head of service, who is a qualified librarian.

Friends of Gloucestershire libraries are awaiting a ruling from their court case against their local authority and are supported by the library staff and Unions in their campaign, although library staff have to register a vested interest and can have no hand in making decisions within the group. Representatives from other campaigns were also present, and the room was full of people wanting to have their say, bursting to make their opinion heard or share their experiences to support other groups. Delegates expressed frustration at the lack of discussion and involvement by DCMS, who they feel should be investigating the local authorities who want to cut libraries.

A rather calmer contribution, which may have been lost amongst the anxiety of campaigning groups, came from a Unison representative who first showed some figures that Unison have produced to show how making a person redundant has an effect on the national economy. I didn't write down the figures, but basically, a typical run of the mill person with an average sort of job contributes something like £5000 to the government each year. When they lose that job, the government gets nothing from them. He then went on to show exactly how local government is funded, through government, business rates, council tax and charges, and how much that income has been cut, over a very short space of time. In short, local government is being manipulated by Westminster, and protests should be aimed at the place where the cuts are being made, parliament.

A number of workshops were run, aimed at sharing and giving advice to friends of libraries groups, and the general consensus of the day was that there should be unity amongst the regional campaigners, although legal battles are being judged specifically under local circumstances. One central resource was requested, one website or one wiki, so that all the campaigns can post their experiences and co-ordinate strategies. Delegates told of their fears about outsourcing and privatisation of library services, and volunteer libraries. They want local authorities to run the public library system. So, what has come out of the day? From a personal basis, I was pleased that a number of people were interested in my research and wanted to find out more about children's mobile libraries and about libraries and literacy. I also met Jessica, a 10 yr old who wrote to David Cameron complaining about the closure of her library. We  need more people like her.

I also want to be part of the campaign in a wider sense, at a strategic level and it did occur to me that the bodies that are cutting libraries are elected, for a short space of time, and they can be unelected. If local authorities run public libraries they are accountable to their constituents, would charities and private companies feel so bound to their community? I believe that unity is certainly the way forward, but like many campaigns before, it is going to be a long battle.

That reminds me, the day was concluded by a rousing speech by Phillip Pullman, a clever and witty man, who put the campaign in context of what is happening in current British society, and politics. He said that we are waging a war against "Stupidity", in other words, although it is a hard fight, common sense must one day prevail. 


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