How will the coalition take aim at our Libraries?

Libraries are important buildings and enduring symbols of a civilised society. The Library of Alexandria was a centre of learning and scholarship in the Mediterranean for many centuries until its destruction.

Your local library problem spends more time supplying The Very Hungry Caterpillar to toddlers than research space to Marx, but they still provide an invaluable resource.

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As Cath Elliott documented last year, libraries often bear the brunt of any cuts to local services. Their benefits are generalised whereas their costs are specified on the bottom line of a council’s outgoings. Luckily as Cath attests they are often fiercely defended, even if that defence is not always successful.

As we enter a period of sustained austerity – despite the protestations of Nobel Laureates – it is ghastly to think that our freedom to information may be attacked. The coalition have already confirmed that our Libraries are in their sights, but the direct manner in which they are to be targeted has not been officially outlined.

However, unofficially it has. The Fatman reports on a friend’s trip to a conference which was “blessed” with a presentation given by a consultant styling himself as a Public Cost Reduction Specialist; how delightful, I’m sure you’re all thinking. If you are looking for some information on what David Cameron’s Big Society may look like and where the axe may fall, it is here that you must look. The attention of our Public Cost Reduction Specialist at one points turns to Public Libraries.

What got to me most was the discussion of public libraries where he suggested a neat and cheap way to meet the demands of those who protest at library closures.

“Well,… if you look at the demographics of people volunteering to work at Oxfam shops, it’s nearly always the same as the demographic of people who campaign to keep libraries open…

Why not let the volunteers run the libraries! And you could have Libraries open 24 hours with this arrangement! And you could do deals with WH Smith to sell remaindered books!”

Hmm… Leaving aside the fact that going to a library at 3.00 am, staffed by an unpaid, well-meaning insomniac, to access a stock of remaindered books is not the most attractive vision, this is horribly simplistic. People campaign to keep a professional service going, not to make an opportunity for themselves for unpaid work.

The casualisation of many forms of labour has been a defining feature of the last few decades.

In some ways it has been positive, it the good times it made it easier for young people to pick up jobs and then pack off travelling. For most others however even in the good times it meant an erosion of their working terms and conditions. In the public sector this has been reflected in an outsourcing of services like cleaning and upwards with a deleterious effect on their quality.

However, we still pay these people, we do not expect them to work for free. It seems that this may be the coalitions plan for our libraries. Worryingly Cameron seems to think our free time is not worth squat – the private sector is already asking employees to work more unpaid hours and now the public sector is asking for us to work for free.

This will have a dreadful impact on the quality of our libraries and will only result in a shortening of their opening hours and a reduction in their number. Reduce pay and you can expect people to work less. Eliminating pay and expecting people to continue, or work harder to replace staff who cannot afford to work pro bono, and you are clearly mad. This not a strategy to keep libraries open, it is a strategy to close them down while appearing to appeal to the Big Society; if libraries close, rest assured it will be sociery’s fault, not Cameron and Clegg’s.

This is the last thing we need to happen to our libraries. On a symbolic level they signify a dedication to knowledge and are a hallmark of civilisation. Practically they allow you to access almost any book you may care to read; travel to the British Library in London, or if you can’t apply for an interlibrary loan. Information is the most precious resource in any society or economy, and libraries play an important role in its propagation.

More importantly there is a danger that any library capacity destroyed would not be replaced. If Libraries did not already exist I find it difficult to imagine they would be invented today. If the influence the Music Industry had on the drafting of the atrocious Digital Economy Bill was anything to go by I do not think it unthinkable that the state provision of free books could be blocked on terms concerning the “sanctity of private property.” A scary prospect.

Of course we have to remember that library closures often impact the poorest the hardest. They often do not have a stock of books at home and must rely on lending service; another example of the class nature of cuts. To remove state support for something as important as libraries is a terrible way to promote a big society. Nothing a library does seems likely to crowd out the activism the big state demands, if anything it appears overwhelmingly likely their work enables and crowds in Cameron’s Big Society.

Defend your libraries because you might not get them back. Defend them because you won’t know when you might need them next. Help defend those that need libraries most. Defend libraries because they help make a society stronger.

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