Why we are marching for the libraries...again!
This Saturday we will go out once again to march in protest against Lewisham Council’s library cuts. The council has hatched a damaging plan to close four of its remaining libraries and to reopen three as community (volunteer-run) libraries. This would leave us with only three publicly-run and funded libraries, down from 12 five years ago. The councillors rubber-stamped these plans last month and redundancy notices have already been served to library staff. The situation is now critical; if these plans are followed through, they will have a devastating impact on what the libraries are able to deliver, and are likely to lead to their closure.
The attack on public libraries
The attack on libraries is a part of a nationwide attack on public services. Now is the time to raise our voices and use our feet to tell the council we do not approve of their plans; that this is a bare-faced denial of their duty to us as their residents, and that cutting investment in our libraries in this way will leave vast swathes of the local population without access to crucial knowledge, information and assistance.
We do not deny that councils have difficult decisions to make, due to recent austerity measures from central government. Libraries, however, are relatively low-cost services, and the rewards they reap are beyond measurement; in terms of community cohesion; education and literacy; and empowerment. The cuts are unnecessary; the savings are small and the council has a reserve fund.
The defence of library services is not just a nostalgic middle-class pastime, as two Lambeth councillors implied during the Carnegie Library occupation. We cannot assume that everyone has access to books and to the internet, or the skills to make use of them. We cannot assume that everyone has another space to read in, or another place to go to see a friendly face. The reality is that they don’t. For many people, libraries are their lifeline.
Library users include children who share a room with others and need a quiet place to study, those who do not have digital skills or access to the internet, and those whose librarian is their only point of social contact. Libraries' purposes have changed, but they are still needed. The people who most need libraries are the most marginalised. To disregard their rights to everything that libraries offer is a shocking abuse of power.
Critics of libraries say that libraries are less well used than in the past; of course, fewer people will be visiting a library, since a lack of investment has led to lower quality services and to local library closures. Those that are accessible are heavily used. Every time I enter a library in this borough it is so full that I struggle to find a free table.
We need publicly run libraries
Evidence shows that community libraries are not successful. Figures show that borrowing rates fell by 60-90% between 2010 and 2014 in the libraries Lewisham had already turned into community libraries – substantially greater declines than borrowing rates in council-run libraries. Volunteers, however enthusiastic, do not have the same skills as librarians.
Closing libraries is a false economy; the Defend the Ten campaign reported that Lambeth spent more on closing its libraries than running them. Due to public spending cuts elsewhere, people have come to rely on libraries for help with other things, like filling in or scanning benefits forms. People will still need that kind of support from the council.
The running-down of libraries is also a breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which states that local authorities have a duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’, which must be overseen by Central Government. This highlights a double failure, at two levels of government.
Holding our leaders to account
Just as it is our government and council’s duty to provide public services, it is ours as citizens to hold them to account.
We have a duty to ourselves and to others to demand that our authorities stop handing over the tools that empower us to private companies, which could not care less about us, or to community groups who don’t have the resources to sustain them.
We have the power to withdraw support from those elected representatives who ignore our interests. As the councillors vote in favour of destroying the libraries that so many of us value so highly, they seem unconcerned that the next local elections are less than two years away. It is up to us to find out which of our candidates supports the services we value, and to vote for them instead.
We also have the right to protest. If you are a library user or if you care about social justice and community, please join us this Saturday 20th August on our march, to fight these unnecessary cuts; cuts which will leave local librarians jobless, us more powerless, and our communities poorer in every way.