I asked Nancy Taaffe to write a guest post for me on the 'hollowing out' of Waltham Forest Libraries. Nancy worked for the Library Service for 10 years and then along with 1000's of other Library Workers in the country she lost her job, she's a Socialist Party Member and a TUSC candidate and is part of the Save Wood Street Library campaign group.
Nancy has some very strong views on the failure of Unison to defend the service and its workers which some might take issue with but in the interests of free speech I think it's important to publish her views.
I have a personal interest in this as i worked for Waltham Forest Libraries when i was 18/19 and remember a professionally staffed and well resourced service but sadly those days have gone!
In 2010 Waltham Forest Labour controlled council voted through budget cuts that amounted to £65 million.
I lost my job in Janurary 2012, along with 20 other people, I worked in the Library Services for over 10 years. As a consequence of these cuts all the small libraries in the borough are now closed two days a week and the library service has been merged with other departments.
Managements tactics were designed to fool the public as to what was actually being proposed and confuse oppositional elements in the community - they didn't fool us.
The proposals brought the whole of the Library service under a new generic and all encompassing directorate misnamed "Residents First" . This new "Residents First" department they said would be delivered from library buildings, in effect keeping the shell of the service ie the building, but completely destroying the library service within.
The senior managers who drove through these cuts have subsequently had their pay increased, whilst older, more experienced and more expensive staff have been made compulsory redundant. A whole army of cheap, casual labour has been recruited to implement these new services, I'm told by a former a colleague that adult social care and children's services are soon to be delivered out of library buildings. The library service is being cannibalised from all angles and the leaders of the trade unions ,despite the members wishes, have not led a fightback.
I was a Unison library steward and joint convener for the department for most of my time in Libraries. We tried to fightback , I ran an indicative ballot in August 2011, the summer before we lost our jobs and 95% of the membership voted in favour of strike action to stop the job cuts. Unison's leadership in London prevaricated, dragged their heels etc and the momentum was lost. Like so much of Unison's non- strategy, they missed the moment, either deliberately or otherwise and the right time to fight back passed. This strategy of "waiting for a Labour Government" has been unmitigated disaster- 375, 000 people have lost their jobs.
The failure to lead a battle around compulsory redundancies within Unison has allowed managers to drive a layer of activists and socialists like myself out of their jobs and out of the trade unions- thus silencing critical voices. I am currently taking my case to an employment tribunal,representing myself as Unison failed to even help me with that.
I not only worked in Libraries but I believed in them, I saw my job as worthwhile and important - I didn't always enjoy my job but I felt useful, not an easy thing to feel. I believe that within the library service the kernel of how learning, reading and culture could be, is to be found . Stripped bare, Libraries represent the nationalisation of books and information and considering the antipathy towards nationalisation it's amazing they've lasted so long. In all my time in Libraries I felt like people were apologising for still existing, particularly in discussions with managers and councillors. I always categorically refused to apologise.
As a life long Socialist I firmly believe that it doesn't have to be like this. There is £800 billion stashed away in the banks, if we released that money and immediately ploughed it back into the infrastructure, libraries could benefit from a renaissance. The enthusiasm for them is deep within the publics' consciousness and the esteem in which they are held probably equates with the NHS. No wonder JK Rowling described the Library service as "The NHS for the mind". New technology need not be used to undermine Libraries or be an excuse to merge them. If we had a far sighted government we could be part of a national literacy strategy which truly worked in tandem with educational establishments and enthusiastically pioneered reading for pleasure.
Libraries by their very nature are non coercive places, generally no-one makes you use a library , look at the way children enjoy libraries, many of them in a way that they don't enjoy school.
Library buildings are often rooted in working class communities, people see them as a feature of the landscape no matter how bleak that landscape may be. They sometimes seemed to me like those stone churches built on the edge of cliffs on Greek Islands or on the top of Scottish mountains. They seemed to have weathered the most hostile of terrains and somehow always survived . I read somewhere that there are more libraries in working class areas than branches of McDonald's and more people visit Libraries throughout any one Saturday than visit football matches- I'm not sure how true that is but it feels like it is.
All of human life can found within them. I've seen people have nervous break downs in libraries, I've helped women find out how to flee domestic violence, I've phoned elderly readers who lived alone and I haven't seen for a bit. I've watched street kids unknowingly self educate themselves and helped numerous people starting out on various courses find their way around. I've run reading groups, assisted school visits, listen to children read and have become so obsessed with enquiries that I've pursued books and information on behalf of a reader for over a week! All of the things that I have listed above are social acts, the reader could have done these things themselves but it is the social provision of information and literature that make libraries libraries.
Human beings are social animals and will always gravitate towards others to share experiences, the ebook and Internet may have blossomed but so too have spoken word performances, book clubs, poetry nights and literary festivals.
I was a late reader, I sometimes think that accounts for my ropey spelling and poor grammar but it was the existence of Mildmay Library that allowed me to read in my own way and in my own time, free from the red pen of a teacher and provide the space for me to do so. I will feel forever grateful.
The Library ideal is thoroughly modern, utterly inspired and perfectly logical. In these Dark Ages of cuts I believe that we have to keep the flame of library enlightenment burning , no matter how difficult that may be. I am currently involved with "Save Wood Street Library campaign" which aims to prevent the library being moved to a shop front in the square and the old building being sold off or developed around, I would encourage everybody to become part of the broader fight to keep these lighthouses of knowledge alight.