Friday, 5 April 2013

My submission on Library Cuts to the European Workers Conference in Tarragona, 16 & 17/3/13


Public Library cuts and the effects on working class communities in the UK; a brief overview

 

In 1913 Lenin, in a sharply satirical piece written for Pravda (What Can be Done for Public Education), extolled the importance of Public Libraries to the masses;

 

“There are quite a number of rotten prejudices current in the Western countries of which Holy Mother Russia is free. They assume there, for instance, that huge public libraries containing hundreds of thousands and millions of volumes, should certainly not be reserved only for the handful of scholars or would-be scholars that uses them. Over there they have set themselves the strange, incomprehensible and barbaric aim of making these gigantic, boundless libraries available, not to a guild of scholars, professors and other such specialists, but to the masses, to the crowd, to the mob!”

Rabochaya Pravda No. 5, July 18, 1913


 

And 100 years later we find ourselves in the situation where 347 libraries in the UK have been closed or are at threat of closure, between 2000-3000 staff made redundant, opening hours slashed and services being handed to volunteers, private firms or in other ways divested.

According to recent figures in the first two years of the Condem government investment in libraries fell by 16%, so no wonder services are being cut but in my opinion this isn’t the only reason for the decline, the neo-liberal agenda prevalent in senior management and policy makers over the last 10-15 years has been equally, if not more, too blame for the current crisis.

 

Library users are now called ‘customers’, libraries are ‘re-branded’ as ‘Discovery Centres’, ‘The Hive’, ‘The Lounge’, library staff are now ‘customer service assistants’ or ‘customer service managers’, self service is rife and the whole vision is for a more market led service with choice as the new mantra. But as we will see the concept of ‘choice’ is often delusionary and is linked to class and access to services and resources.

 

Library services are also being over-diversified to the point where they are barely recognisable as libraries, turned into ‘one stop shops’ that offer a whole host of services not traditionally linked to libraries.

In my opinion this over-diversification not only detracts from core purpose of public libraries as bastions of freely accessible information/knowledge and educational/learning opportunities but crucially if the public and political perception is altered then it can make it easier to cut or divest them.

The plot thickens when you look at the links that The Society of Chief Librarians have with the Chief Leisure Officers Association which in my opinion is not an informal or coincidental relationship.

 

Three councils in the UK, Greenwich, Wandsworth and Hounslow, (with Croydon, Ealing and Harrow in the pipe line) have privatised their library services, JLIS in Hounslow are a building firm and GLL (a Social Enterprise) in Greenwich and Wandsworth run Leisure Centres and swimming pools. Workers transferred over to these companies often experience detrimental terms and conditions and are often denied union recognition. And there serious concerns with private firms that if profit is the overriding motive then users and the service will suffer?

For more details see my blog www.dontprivatiselibraries.blogspot.com

The Arts Council, the body given the development remit for libraries in England, has had its funding cut and has had a new Chair, Peter Bazalgette, with his links to and experience of private finance thrust upon them, the old Chair, Liz Forgan, was ousted for allegedly being too close to the Labour Party? So there is a clear political agenda to attract private money to the sector and to sideline and actively divest the service.

We also have a Secretary of State, Ed Vaizey, and his sidekick, Maria Miller, who not only refuse to intervene when councils slash library services but publicly state that the service is in rude health!

 

Having less paid staff also poses major problems, outreach programmes are reduced, staff are put under severe stress and strain, specialist knowledge is lost, morale and motivation levels plummet and the ‘ethos’ is eroded. Slowly but surely the service is ‘hollowed out’ leading to a less responsive, professional and accountable service. The introduction of self serve into libraries also leads to staff cuts and changes the relationship between users and workers to that of one that is more akin to a retail transaction.

The formation and development of volunteer run so-called ‘community libraries’, which although was originally put forward by Labour and has been taken up as a desperate option by many communities who have had a gun put to their heads and told “run your library or we’ll close it”, is now being orchestrated and bankrolled by ‘locality’, the political wing of the DCLG and last year for the first time more volunteers where working in public libraries than paid staff;

 

“in 2011/12 there were 23,397 volunteers, and 21,780 staff, the first year that volunteer numbers have surpassed staff numbers.”


 

So what effect do all these political shenanigans, budget cuts and changes of perceptions and agendas have on library users, many of whom are working class and socially and economically disadvantaged?

 
Well in practical terms having less library buildings, or costly new PFI ones built in town centres, means that some of the poorer, vulnerable and less mobile members of a community may have to travel further to use the service and if they haven’t got enough money for petrol or a bus or train fare then they are denied access (many mobile and housebound services have also been cut). Ah! but couldn’t they just access e-books and online resources I hear you say, well many do but there are still many caught up in the digital divide without internet access or the skills needed to utilise the technology. For detailed figures see http://www.21stcenturychallenges.org/60-seconds/what-is-the-digital-divide/

 
Also instead of the national service being ‘comprehensive and efficient’ as stated in the 1964 Act it has now become a postcode lottery in respect of which level and model of service you are lucky or in most cases unlucky to have in your local area. This is further complicated by the issue of class; middle/upper middle class communities often have more time and resources to fight cuts and to run and develop services themselves which often means that working class communities lose out.

 

Public Libraries play a crucial part in the socio-economic wellbeing of many working class communities, they offer free, although many now charge for IT use, access to lifelong learning opportunities which leads to an increase in empowerment and social equity, the very reason that the Condems are trying to destroy them.

 
Austerity is a myth perpetrated by the ‘Troika’, banks and reactionary, imperialist and capitalist governments to attack the working classes, Public Sector and the Trade Union Movement. We need to mobilise workers, trade unionists and local working class communities together in a combined and focussed fight back against these savage attacks before we lose libraries and many other crucial public services, which it goes without saying would be a disaster.

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