Are Library Campaigns Doing It Right?

Over the last few months, library campaigns have sprung up all over the country, aiming to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts to public library services. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m involved in Save Doncaster Libraries (a local campaign) and Voices for the Library (a national advocacy campaign to promote the value of public libraries and trained library staff and debunk library myths promulgated by the media).

I just read this post on the Liberal Conspiracy site, suggesting reasons that opposition to all cuts is unsustainable. A lot of it resonated with me, in terms of issues that have arisen at campaign meetings, planning sessions and at the meetings of other groups I’ve sat in on recently. The article made me wonder: are library campaigns are doing it right, and should other campaigns be following our lead?

Hundal argues that “the cry to ‘oppose all cuts’ is unsustainable for three reasons: tactically, economically and politically”. The relevant bits to library campaigns are the tactical and political elements.

Tactically, he says that it won’t work because you need to be for something rather than against something, and that campaigns should be seen as for well-run frontline services. This is what both of the campaigns I’m involved in are all about:

  • In Doncaster, we’re trying to make the council understand that a lot of people value library services and that they have a very important role in communities. We’re arguing that the reason library usage has declined in recent years is because book budgets, staff numbers, professional staffing, opening hours and the condition of buildings have been cut, bit by bit, to the point that the libraries are incredibly underfunded and it’s a sign of the sheer importance of libraries and the need of Doncaster communities that the libraries are being used at all. If the council would invest in its libraries, the town would reap the benefits in many areas – not just library usage statistics, but in levels of educational attainment, antisocial behaviour, reoffending, health, mental wellbeing, community cohesion, racism…and on and on.
  • Voices for the Library’s raison d’être, if you will, is “to provide a balanced view of the service and the professionals who work there, and to discuss some ideas for the way forward”. We ask for stories from library users and staff about how great and valuable libraries are, as well as guest blog posts about specific library issues and services from those who know most about them. We’ve covered topics such as information literacy, the role of volunteers, public library debates, bibliotherapy and the importance of cataloguing. These guest posts investigate issues that people might not realise libraries are involved in, and hopefully help enlighten and inform local and national government as well as the general public. We’re promoting the importance of well-run frontline services.

Politically, Hundal’s suggestion is that campaigns should “go with something like ‘Defend our services’, ‘Save the front-line’, ‘Protect Durham’s communities’ or something more imaginative”. Save Doncaster Libraries and Voices for the Library are both doing that!

  • Save Doncaster Libraries argue that further cuts to Doncaster’s already massively underfunded libraries won’t work. The amount spent on libraries in Doncaster is a tiny amount and won’t make a dent in the amount of savings that the council is expected to make. They’ve already sacked the librarians. They’ve already reduced opening hours. They’ve already slashed book budgets. There’s nothing left to take. Protecting, and even investing in the libraries, however, would make a real difference to the state of the town.
  • Voices for the Library, as I’ve said, seek to explain the value of public libraries to society, communities and individuals. Libraries aren’t expensive to run, but investing in people pays dividends: “Without education, people can’t do skilled jobs. Without healthcare, people get sick and become unable to work. It’s way more expensive to put kids and drug addicts in jail than to run youth centres and treatment programmes. If we cut the services that help people to become independent and productive members of society then we could end up having to support them forever. That would cost loads”. Among many many other things, libraries educate people; help them to develop skills; support healthcare; and offer activities for children and teenagers. Even if (and that’s a big if) some cuts are necessary, the government shouldn’t be cutting library services.

So, it’s got me thinking. In Doncaster, we’ve got the support of other local campaigns and organisations, including Coalition of Resistance, Doncaster Coalition Against Cuts, Unison, TUC, Counterfire and Campaign for the Book (which began in response to the last set of cuts to Doncaster library services). We’re not affiliated with any of the organisations – Save Doncaster Libraries is a single-issue campaign, political but not Political, making suggestions at the same time as explaining why cuts to libraries are a Dreadful Idea, but our supporters help us promote the issues of library cuts and do some of the fighting for us. Similarly, Voices for the Library have the support of a lot of organisations such as CILIP, The Reading Agency, Campaign for the Book, SLA Europe and Opening the Book. We’re explaining why libraries are incredibly important, sharing evidence of this and advocating for libraries in the national media. Hundal’s conclusion is that “our movement has to be able to absorb a range of opinions. Any coalition that takes a puritanical stance, as many socialists are prone to do, will only end up talking to itself. That spells failure.” There’s a whole bunch of librarians and information professionals busting their way out of the echo chamber as we speak. Maybe other campaigns have a lot to learn from libraries and librarians – and maybe they could help us out by supporting us, too!

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3 thoughts on “Are Library Campaigns Doing It Right?

  1. Alan Gibbons

    I think you are very kind dealing with our critics, Lauren.
    It is jaw-droppingly absurd to accuse library and literacy campaigners of only being against something.
    What are we for? Well, these things for starters:
    *books free to borrowers in clean, accessible libraries
    *expert support to borrowers
    *convenient opening times
    *the right of every citizen, no matter how wealthy, to read whatever they please
    *improved literacy standards for our population
    *the huge contribution made by the arts and literature to the national purse
    *the freedom to think what you like and be able to substantiate it with good information and research
    What are we against:
    *blinkered politicians who pour money into banks so they can give bonuses to already wealthy people
    *philistinism
    *illiteracy
    *the withering of the imagination
    *social idleness and aimlessness generated by poor literacy levels
    *the restriction of freedom created by inadequate information and research

    Reply
  2. Lauren Post author

    I agree that it’s daft to criticise library campaigners for trying to stop library cuts, but I do think it’s important to have a clear mission and strategy in campaigns to make sure that the efforts we make are as effective as they can be – using the points you’ve given, for example!

    Sunny’s recommendations weren’t directed at library campaigns specifically, but at campaigns in opposition to cuts in general. I took those and considered them within a library context.

    Reply
  3. Ian Anstice

    It may be useful to get to the politicians before they make the announcements. I know that in many authorities, the decisions are being made very very quickly and without any significant consultation. This is in part due to the sheer size of the cuts and their time-scale, panic and also, perhaps, due to some sort of ideological agenda.

    It is councillors who make these decisions and very senior officers (many of course not librarians) who advise them. To avoid the obvious answer (“close the library!”, “cut hours!”, “use as-yet-unidentified volunteers!”) they need to be given less obvious ones – perhaps the ones that (shock) Tim Coates is suggesting, perhaps not. But they do need an alternative and someone (CILIP? MLA? Ed Vaizey? Are you there?) needs to give it to them.

    Otherwise, it’s going to be a question of “what should we cut? Schools? Roads? Elderly care? Or that free bookshop thing?” and, as we have seen, many councillors know the answer to that one.

    Reply

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