Friday, 28 November 2014

Speak Up for Libraries

Last Saturday I dragged myself out of bed at just after 5.30 am to catch an early train to London. It doesn't take very long to get to London, but I booked my tickets in August in a rush of enthusiasm when the days were long, light and warm! So I arrived nearly 2 hours before the start of the Speak up for Libraries Conference 2014 in the damp, cold and dullness. I amused myself nicely with a Beano Annual illustration exhibition in St Pancras, a walk in Regent's Park and standing at the foot of the Post Office Tower (yes, I know it isn't called that any more) marvelling at 1960's technology.

I was so pleased that I did manage to drag myself out of bed, however, because the conference was really interesting and felt that it had a purpose to it. I was surprised at the number of Unison reps that were there, especially the number of librarians that are also Unison reps. When I worked in Derby City Libraries, the Union reps were not from libraries, and didn't have the same passion as the ones I saw last Saturday. A sign of the change of times, I think, I left Derby City Libraries just before all the cuts happened. Librarians have become activists. I was also pleased to meet a number of people, some of them quite elderly, who were simply library users, passionate about their library with some of them actively resisting library pending library closure. One gentleman said to me that libraries are "the poor man's university": the place where anyone can learn irrespective of their class or income. Of course the words there are the phraseology of another generation, we don't talk about "The poor" in the same way, and he was using the term "man" to mean universal humanity, but coming from the South Wales Valleys myself, I knew exactly what he meant. The library was, and still is, a place where you can learn despite not going to school or not understanding your school work. On the Reading Rocket, at a few stops, we had random individual children coming along and enjoying themselves with books, who we knew should have been in school. We had the attitude that they were at least doing something constructive with their time, and learning what they wanted to learn.

Sorry, this has diverted me from my main theme today, the Speak Up for Libraries Conference. It was  well organised with workshops in the morning to discuss questions to put to politicians prior to the forthcoming general election, to work out ways to activate library campaigners on the ground during the pre-election time and polarise what the Speak Up coalition (SUFL) can do. These workshops also served as a vehicle for people's frustrations at what was happening in their area, good to unload their feelings before the politicians joined us in the afternoon. The group that I was in came up with the following:

To politicians: "What would your elevator (lift) pitch be for libraries?"
                        "Will there be a postcode lottery for library services in the future"
We also felt that having library standards for local councils were necessary, and were interested in their viewpoint of volunteer run libraries.

For local campaigners:
                         Give all local councillors library cards
                         Educate local councillors in what libraries really do
                         Get councillors to justify library cuts
                         Attend council meetings when libraries being discussed
                         Send postcards to residents naming councillors who want to close libraries

The SUFL coalition should:
                         Aid  national co-ordination of friends of libraries groups
                         Collate information.
                         Be honest, and state positives as well as the negatives about libraries closing or being                          taken over

In the afternoon, three politicians, Green, Conservative and Labour, spoke about their party's position on libraries. UKIP had not been invited. Lib Dems had, but could not find a representative.

Martin Francis of the Green party spoke passionately about libraries being a neutral, social space which could enhance and change peoples lives. He stated that the Green Party considers libraries a public service not something that needs to have financial returns.

Helen Goodman MP and shadow secretary for Culture, Media and Sport (Labour), talked about statistics of closed and at risk libraries, suggested the government underspend of faster broadband put towards supporting libraries. She stated that Labour does not approve of putting out libraries “entirely” to voluntary sector. Believes in professional libraries.

Justin Tomlinson MP  Conservative, was chair of parliamentary library group. He also quoted statistics and said that libraries should be run by core professional staff, However, libraries need upgrading, should open longer hours and library numbers should be published. He did not appear to be very well informed about what libraries are actually doing.

The discussion included Digital Inclusion, which was supported by Green and Labour, but Justin said that libraries workers shouldn't be IT workers, they should have time to do their proper jobs. There was gasps and stuff from the floor, IT is so much part of librarianship these days. As for Secretary of State intervention to prevent library closure, Labour and Greens agreed that they should, and Conservative think that they should not interfere with local decisions. As for volunteers running libraries, Labour thought they may be a current necessary evil, Green was not clear on the situation and Conservatives thought that they add useful extra skills, but should not be the core of library function. One has to remember that they are politicians speaking to about 100 people passionate about libraries, they were not going to say anything contentious.  

The second part of the afternoon was devoted to the latest library reviews,Welsh Libraries and the Seighart Review of English public libraries. Clare Creaser gave a useful summary of the Welsh Libraries, which have library standards and the intention that a Minister of State can and will intervene to prevent library closure,

Sue Chateris gave an indication of what may be in the Seighart Review when it is published and Alan Gibbons gave a very socialist and impassioned speech about the power of libraries which made me realise that he is now much more a library campaigner than a children's author these days.

The day finished with drinks and some food at a nearby pub where I got to know Barbara Band, the current President of CILIP who appears to be a very dedicated School Librarian, so we already had a bond and Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News, a website that spreads reported news about UK public libraries which puts this blog to shame.   

This is a long blogpost to reflect a long day. I got home at around 11pm. I was pleased that I was there to take part in the debate, and I hope I now have the resolve to ask all politicians that knock on my door in the next few months "What are you going to do about libraries?". Please do the same thing.

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