“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” -Walter Cronkite
Conservative Surrey County Council has been trying to close libraries for 30 years or more and now they want to use “austerity” as an excuse to do it. It’s the same excuse that David Cameron is using to privatise the NHS, cut the police, slash employment rights, remove support for the disabled, and all the other policies they got into politics to achieve. Previous Tory governments used “inflation” as an excuse to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Today it’s “austerity” but the aim is the same.
New Model Army
To disguise their motive, Surrey County Council (SCC) claimed that small libraries would be able to stay open if groups of volunteers could be found to replace paid staff. They claimed this would save money and we live in straitened times. This was all Tory councillors needed to hear to support the policy. A sense of financial emergency was induced to encourage volunteers to come forward. The Big Society’s volunteer new model army was on the march!
Or was it? Time passed and the SCC cabinet member for libraries was fired and placed under investigation. The new cabinet member took office and admitted that this so-called Community Partnered Libraries scheme actually wouldn’t save any money. She said it was about getting more use from the libraries but the threat of closure still hangs over them, for some reason.
“Cutting libraries in recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague”― Eleanor Crumblehulme
Why Are We Doing This Again?
So there was no financial emergency in the new version of history from SCC. They still wanted to sack the librarians though. Librarians are not highly paid fat cats raking in huge bonuses. They are people who love books and their calling is to introduce as many people as possible to reading and open their minds. You can see why Conservative councillors want rid of them.
It is estimated that between 80 and 120 volunteers will be required to replace one librarian. This allows for natural wastage and the amount of time people are usually prepared to put in. Librarians are trained in data protection and how to deal with vulnerable groups. For volunteers to replace them completely they would need that training, which would have to be kept up to date and properly documented.
SCC decided to get round the data protection problem by removing certain IT capability from volunteer run libraries. Removing it costs money and the resulting service to customers is worse. Books often have to be moved from one library to another just to be entered onto a computer now. They have increased the cost and reduced the service.
Dealing with vulnerable groups is something that SCC doesn’t prioritise. They thought equalities training could be a box-ticking exercise. They were wrong. The pressure group SLAM, Surrey Libraries Action Movement, warned them that they would be breaking the law but SCC didn’t listen. SLAM was forced to take SCC to the High Court and won a judicial review. SCC were SLAM-dunked!
“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the free public library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” –Andrew Carnegie
After their victory in court, SLAM and other residents’ groups presented proposals to SCC for how volunteers could work alongside paid staff. This would save the training costs and mean the computer links could stay. SCC refused to listen again.
Unfortunately our local county councillors all toed the party line to protect their political careers instead of voting for what their electorate wanted. Cllr Stuart MacLeod (Con, Bagshot, Windlesham & Lightwater East) was on the Communities Select Committee and voted for the Tory plan. If one Tory had broken ranks it would have been sent back for further consideration. MacLeod was replaced on the committee after he was convicted of a drink-driving offence. His replacement, hard right-winger, Cllr Denis Fuller (Con, Camberley West), also voted for his party’s plan. They both betrayed their electorate very badly. The next county council election is 2 May 2013.
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
There were ten small libraries on the first hitlist, including Bagshot, and a further nine on the second, including Lightwater, Ash and Frimley Green, which was planned for a year after the first. Only three of the first list are now being run by volunteers. SCC found Tory Party activists who would give up their time to promote the policy. Once all 19 libraries have been handed over to volunteers (or closed) they can drift away with the reward of a job well done and over the subsequent years the remaining libraries will no doubt close, one by one.
Why do I think this will happen? It’s true there are many motivated library volunteers who are not Tory Party activists. Many of them will give up their time to save their local library from closure. Will they keep doing it, forever? Will they be prepared to take over legal liability for what happens in the building, like accidents? SCC are demanding this. Will they remain motivated when they realise that their volunteering has led to their librarian being sacked? When they become unable to volunteer who will recruit the next generation of free library workers?
Me at the “Love your library” rally, Bagshot, Oct 2011.
Libraries Need Librarians
There is a reason why libraries have librarians. I walked through the snow today to Lightwater Library which was open and inviting as usual. The enthusiastic friendly librarian was at work, despite the weather. She was there to advise people about books but also on how to use the computers and the internet. Without a knowledgeable librarian some people will be cut off from online services like banking, shopping and communicating with friends and family.
If volunteers worked alongside paid librarians, they could increase and improve the libraries’ services and create a supportive social atmosphere for the community which would encourage people into the library. It is what residents want too. SCC won’t allow it, even though it won’t cost any more, because it would secure the future of the small libraries and make it more difficult to close them, which is their ideological aim.
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” -Andrew Carnegie
Libraries provide a vital function, particularly in villages. When the Tories scrapped the mobile library last year, its loss was felt like a bereavement by many in Windlesham. One day a week it had connected people who are now more isolated. The professional staff were part of the village family.
In Lightwater and Bagshot the libraries are used by the young and old, but for different reasons. Entering the world of books as a child opens up endless possibilities for learning, fulfilment and entertainment throughout life. Free public libraries are the only way to ensure that every child can achieve this. For the elderly, the library links them to their community. Practically, many people need the library and librarians to get online too.
Libraries are the repository of local history in many communities. Without them we may forget the previous inhabitants and stories of our villages.
If you would like to help save your local library, just visit it, look around, sign up for a library card if you don’t have one, borrow something interesting, and read a book!
“Without the library, you have no civilization.” -Ray Bradbury