Alan Gibbons, author, organiser of the Campaign for the Book and lifelong socialist discusses the attacks that the library service is facing in Britain. He is based in Liverpool where proposals to cut eleven of the city’s nineteen libraries have recently been announced.
It is the fiftieth anniversary of the public library service. This should be a cause for celebration. Libraries have some of the highest approval ratings of any public service. In the eyes of the public they rate second only to the NHS as the most popular component of modern, state-funded provision. It is hardly surprising. Libraries are a truly democratic system, opening the doors of literacy and opportunity to rich and poor alike.
They are places where you can borrow books and other items for free, where you can get advice, search for a job, take your children to story-telling sessions, attend a local book group, research family and local history and access many other services. They are most heavily used by the young and the elderly. Forget the hoary tales of kids not reading. Children’s borrowing is 6% up, the healthiest user group by far.
What’s more, they have moved with the times. In most libraries the banks of computers are always occupied. Some book borrowing has gone digital. Few institutions should be closer to the hearts of socialists and progressives. Universally available, with a remit to educate and improve, our libraries offer an image of a fairer, more collectivist society with deep roots in local communities.
Sadly, on this important anniversary, public libraries face an uncertain future. When he was Shadow Culture Secretary, the present incumbent Ed Vaizey attacked Labour when eleven libraries faced closure in Wirral. In office, with staggering hypocrisy, Mr Vaizey has overseen a drastic erosion of the public library network. According to the authoritative Public Libraries News: “493 libraries (411 buildings and 82 mobiles) are currently reported as either likely to be closed or passed to volunteers or have been closed/left council control from 1/4/13 to 31/3/14 out of c.4265 in the UK.”
In line with this coalition government’s dogmatic attitude to public service and privatization, many libraries are now volunteer-led operations, providing a narrower range of opportunities. 10% of library staff have gone. Opening hours are slashed. Book stocks are reduced.
For years libraries have been at the heart of socialist agitation. Chartists were heavily involved in the establishment of the first truly free libraries in the nineteenth century. Though the modern public library service was established in 1964 during a Tory administration with the Museums and Public Libraries Act, it was one of the final elements of the post-War settlement that, in the words of Lord Hailsham, gave us social reform rather than social revolution. The sense that working people had to educate themselves in order to contest the rule of the established order was a driving force in calls for a publicly funded service with branches in every locality.
I was in Montreal recently on a speaking tour. Members of the audience at one event reflected that the UK, once a beacon of library innovation, was now seen as a warning of what could happen. Libraries here are in crisis. It is not inevitable in the sixth richest country in the world. It is not a product of unavoidable technical change. Technical innovation has been integrated into most good libraries. It is not happening everywhere on the same scale. South Korea has built 180 new libraries. Japan, with a more protracted economic crisis than the UK, has 3.4 percent more branches than the last survey and 11.3 percent more paid library workers. New Zealand and Ireland, while having their own funding problems, have strategic plans to make the best of a bad job. In the UK, we have chaos and disregard, and it is all down to leadership. There isn’t any. A parliamentary committee described the stewardship of the service as ‘woeful’ and it has worsened under Ed Vaizey. The Culture Minister has consistently refused to intervene to prevent the most drastic council cuts even though he was vociferous in demanding his predecessor intervene in Wirral. We now face the worst cuts yet. Kirklees, encouraged by Vaizey’s absentionism, is planning to close or hand over to volunteers 24 of its 26 libraries, something nobody could have imagined in their worst nightmares just a few years ago.
Such is the popularity of libraries that resistance has been at a relatively high level. In 2008 I established the Campaign for the Book. By February 2011, we were able to organise 110 Read Ins across the country involving some 10,000 people. This led to the establishment in February 2012 of National Libraries Day. In order to develop the broadest possible unity in action, the Campaign for the Book joined the Library Campaign, Unison, Voice for the Library, the librarians’ body CILIP and others in founding the Speak up for Libraries coalition.
The coalition holds annual conferences and organised a rally and lobby of parliament in March 2012 attended by authors, librarians, campaigners and most importantly library users. This national agitation has been paralleled by hundreds, possibly thousands of local demonstrations, pickets, lobbies, meetings and petitioning sessions. It is not apathy that has permitted the closure and divestment of so many branch libraries.
So why is the situation still so dire? Firstly, there is no major political party throwing its weight behind the defence of public service in general and libraries in particular. The Lib Dems continue to slavishly support every Tory cut and vociferously support the austerity con. Labour has signally failed to develop an independent policy on libraries. In a recent love-in on the Sunday Politics the Labour and Tory MPs responded to my arguments with identical points of view. The spectacle was truly sickening. Secondly, while the trade union movement has continued to be relatively weak, with librarians working in small, isolated units, strike action has been extremely limited. Librarians are notoriously not allowed to exhibit campaign materials in their libraries.
The campaign to protect the public library service has been popular, vociferous and highly successful in getting its points across in the media. It can’t inoculate itself from the weaknesses of the wider anti-austerity movement however. Until there is a return of generalized working class resistance, we will have to continue our bitter war of attrition against a confident and arrogant opponent.