My local council announced the closure of sixteen libraries this week. Sixteen. Sixteen out of 45. That’s a lot of libraries. A lot of books. A lot of learning. A lot of possibilities. All gone. Vanished. Evaporated.
Fife Council is under pressure, like all councils in the UK. They need to make difficult decisions about which front line services to make cuts to in order to balance the books with the budgets allocated to them. Make no mistake: these are decisions forced onto local councils by central government. In austerity Britain, Eton-educated politicians sign the orders to cut budgets, leaving local councillors to weild the knife, and local communities to mop up the blood spilled.
Can you tell I’m angry?
When bombs, paid for by a government commited to ‘austerity’, fall on far-away communities, destroying what little they have left of public services, then you know the end of days has arrived. I shan’t even bother to work out how many libraries could be kept open for each bomb that falls on Syria, (or how many nurses employed, free school meals provided, care home beds offered…).
The Council talks of “tough decisions” and the need for “sustainable” services which are “suited to customer need”. And there lies the truth of the matter: library users are no longer seen as readers or learners or folk with a hunger for knowledge; we are customers. The language is important: by turning a library user into an unwitting player in a commercial transaction, those holding the purse strings can legitamise these difficult commercial decisions. Not enough customers for your service? No problem. Remove the service. Budget balanced. Bombs purchased. Let’s all go home.
The fact that public services were never supposed to make money seems lost.
It comes down to how we measure wealth. And in this age, wealth is measured solely in ownership of property. The value of learning, knowledge, reading, talking, singing, painting, laughing, keeping warm by a library radiator, interacting with people…the value of all these things has been reduced, made less imporatnt; it’s been forgotten.
I shouldn’t need to illustrate how important local libraries are to a community, but personal testimony seems to connect people to an issue, so here’s mine…(More testimony today in the Guardian from Fife writers Val McDirmid and Ian Rankin).
As soon as I was reading, my Saturday mornings where spent in two places. We always went swimming at the local, council-run swimming pool; followed by a visit to the library next door. I can still remember the thrill – and mild panic – of deciding which four books would be exchanged for my four pink children’s tokens. Four was never enough, so this was a decision of monumental, and weekly, importance.
Then, having moved to another county, I discovered the delight that is Romsey Library. This is the sort of place the Victorian philanthropists had in mind when they decided to share their wealth with less fortunate people and give the gift of learning through their generosity. What a privilege for a child to have this resource a short bike ride away. In the socially democratic years of post-war Britain, the State took on the role of providing health and education when it still understood the benefits that universal learning (and health care) could bring to a nation.
It wasn’t long before I could swap my pink tokens for mustard-coloured adult ones. I think there was a transition period when I was allowed both; ah, the agonies I must have gone through. Especially when the pink tokens must have been revoked, effectively banning me from borrowing anything from the children’s library. The horror!
How to get round this tricky dilemma?
Get a saturday job in the library of course! I think I’ve never felt the same satisfaction from paid employment as I did back then, pushing my wooden trolly around, replacing borrowed books on shelves. I’d sneak the occasional five minutes (no-one was watching if I hid in the reference section, apart from the homeless man who spent his days snoozing at the table there) to read a page or two from whatever had been returned.
The library for me was a place of learning and a vital resource for someone from a single-parent family. There was no money to buy books. There was often no money to buy decent food. Like our health service, libraries do not discriminate: rich people can borrow as many books as the poor. That is the point. It is, or was, about knowledge for all. Without my local library I would not be writing now. I would not have made it to university. I would not have discovered the joy of flicking through an encyclopaedia for the hell of it.
I would not be me.
I don’t blame Fife council for their decision to close the libraries; with their hands tied very firmly behind their backs by the rope of austerity, what choice did they have? The blame lies squarely with those in Westminster who willingly allow the axe to fall on public services. This is nothing less than an ideology-driven programme to shrink the state, and with it shrink the hopes, opportunities and dreams of communities everywhere.
It is, for many, the end of knowledge.