Caught by the River

Libraries Gave Us Power

28th January 2011

Another day, another deflated rant about the state of the nation. This time, it’s the wholly depressing local council cuts threatening library services.

First things first, an aside to get to the point – my little library story. Last summer, I ran an arts project out of a mobile library that trundled a mellow path through east London’s Olympic boroughs. Seeing a beaten up mobile library pull up in the middle of a park in Hackney seemed to ignite certain memories in people. Possibly it symbolised something just out of reach from people’s youth; a four wheeled, eight-tonne reminder of localism at its nostalgic best. Over three weeks, we took the book bus round fields and parks and even into the heart of the banking district when we jack-knifed across a road in Canary Wharf. People came, browsed and – hopefully – went away thinking they maybe they might borrow a book before too long. By the time the project finished in sunny Greenwich, it seemed like job done and the library van was retired gracefully.

What a difference just a few months makes. Libraries – for so long the understated backbones of our towns and cities – are big in the news and how. Local council cuts mean that library services are being decimated across the country. In Oxfordshire – hardly the East End – 20 out of the county’s 43 public libraries face closure. And surely with those cuts the humble mobile library, vital for connecting the disconnected, will end up becoming something remembered wistfully by middle aged bibliophiles like myself.

Plans are afoot to dangle a particularly rotten carrot in proposals for a pot of money that local communities can bid to run their own local services – libraries included. The whole thing is exasperating – its as if the government are trying to throw so much out there that they knacker out anyone with a mind to protest, knowing that maybe one or two crazy measures will get through even if the majority end up getting redrafted, rejigged, remodeled.

I can’t really put into words what I think about all of this, and if I could, I certainly wouldn’t manage anything like the eloquence of the great Philip Pullman, whose speech to a gathering of people at Oxford County Council a few days ago nails the situation perfectly As he says – “Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life.

Read it, write to your MP, make your voice heard, save our libraries. They’re just too important to lose.

Thanks to Open Democracy for posting this.