International Inspiration – Saving Libraries in Great Britain

librariancrafterArchive, Budget Cuts

As Save NYC Libraries reported in February, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget is a total disaster for public libraries in New York City. Our libraries are already at the breaking point, and any further cuts will change public libraries as we know them – and not for the better. It’s time for library users, library workers, and everyone who values the essential services libraries provide to our communities to stand up and fight back. But the question inevitably arises: how are we going to do it?

As we gear up for a new round of organizing and activism, it would behoove us to look across the pond to the U.K. for inspiration. Since a Conservative-led coalition government came to power last spring, it has attempted to drive through an austerity program so radical that it makes Margaret Thatcher look like a raging socialist by comparison. As part of this drive to cut spending on public services, the appropriately named Eric Pickles (the government’s Communities Minister) announced plans (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/dec/13/eric-pickles-council-budget-cuts) to cut spending on local governments that would result in the closure of over 400 public libraries and mobile units across the country.

But the government has gotten more than it bargained for. On February 5, activists organized Save Our Libraries Day (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/culture-cuts-blog/2011/feb/05/save-our-libraries-day-live-coverage) in hundreds of cities and towns across the U.K. Library workers in Sheffield staged a mass shush-in. Authors Mark Haddon and Jane Bingham spoke to library supporters in Oxfordshire. In Dorset, the great singer-activist Billy Bragg performed for protesters, who pursued the brilliant strategem of a “borrow-in” – checking all the books out of the library to prevent its closure. To get a sense of just how massive this day of action was, just take a look at this map created by the Guardian newspaper:

MAP: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/save-our-libraries-protests

Even better, the Save Our Libraries campaign seems to have scored some important victories. The Guardian reports (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/15/library-protests-councils-rethink-cuts) that a number of county and local councils are reversing closures in the face of the massive public outcry. Lobbying, letter-writing, and the whole range of official forms of citizen participation will be important to any campaign, but if we want to stop Bloomberg’s cuts we’re going to have to take a page out of the Brits’ book and turn up the heat. As the old Wobbly slogan put it, “direct action gets the goods.”

As we organize to defend our libraries, let’s keep in mind that our fight goes beyond our immediate concerns and inevitably raises the larger question – what kind of city do we want to live in? One that offers public spaces for people of all backgrounds to enrich their lives, or one that would rather spend the money subsidizing luxury condos we don’t need (http://www.observer.com/2011/politics/council-members-bash-proposed-extension)? Speaking before an anti-cuts meeting in Oxfordshire,
the prominent young adult novelist Philip Pullman got to the heart of the matter (http://falseeconomy.org.uk/blog/save-oxfordshire-libraries-speech-philip-pullman):

“Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days…The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs. That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.”

This spring we have a chance to save our libraries from the greedy ghost. We’re counting on you to join us.

Chris Maisano

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librariancrafterInternational Inspiration – Saving Libraries in Great Britain