Say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.

This Mail article filled me with so much rage that I had to channel it into something that might be useful for people, which is better than spending an hour dissecting the piece on my Facebook wall, right? I’ll just dissect it here.

Libraries too middle class and we’re right to be shutting them says Redwood
Former Tory leadership contender John Redwood said it was right to consider shutting many libraries

Libraries pander too much to the middle classes, John Redwood claimed yesterday.

Yes yes, nothing new here. Roy Clare’s already been there. “Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class” wrote Clare in January. I don’t have a problem with this. I do have a problem with his false assumption that people fighting for libraries are all white, middle class and conservative (small c) but that’s another issue. The point is, that libraries shouldn’t pander too much to the middle classes. But do they? I’ve never found that to be the case. Should they close if they do? No, don’t be stupid. If something’s not very well, make it better. I have images of him at the vets with his a St. Bernard that saved his life on the Swiss Alps, being told it’s got a cold. “Put it down”, says Redwood, callously.

The former Tory leadership contender said it was right to consider shutting many of them because they did not serve their communities properly.

See above. Local authorities cannot legally shut down a library if it fails to serve its communities properly. In fact, they have a legal duty to ensure that it does serve its community properly. If the local authority fails to do that, the Secretary of State has a legal duty to intervene and make sure they do.

He suggested that universities and secondary schools could open up their libraries to the public instead.

There are many reasons this is a Terrible Idea. Here are three:

1) Universities and secondary schools stock very different materials to public libraries. There is some cross-over, like cds, if the university has a music department, and children’s fiction in a secondary school say. However, you can’t just fling open the doors and assume that all information needs of the public will be met by an academic or school library. I’m not sure Bob the mechanic would be able to find that manual he needs to get his start-up business off the ground at his local secondary comp.

2) Running with the brainwave, though – ok, so we make academic and school libraries open to the public. There are so many security issues with this. If a student wants to use another academic library, they’re able to do so through the incredibly useful SCONUL scheme, where basically, the home institution gives a nod to the other university that this borrower is a good one and doesn’t steal items or bring them back really late and so on. There’s a lot of very expensive stock in academic libraries, which is why for the most part, universities don’t allow any Tom, Dick or Harry in off the street. (They have enough issues with stock theft from their own students…) On the school library front, parents I’ve spoken to have been up in arms about the idea of the public being able to wander in off the street and use the school library. I’m not 100% up on my child safety laws, but I’m pretty sure there are some fairly solid grounds for that not being a possibility.

3) A lot of people who use libraries to learn as adults didn’t perform well at school, which is why they have a need to do something about it now, through improving their literacy, numeracy, ICT skills etc. Removing the only neutral, non-judgemental space they have and telling them that if they want to learn, they’ve got to go back to school, isn’t going to work. I wrote a piece for the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education about public libraries and adult learning, in which I said “For many adult learners, schools are associated with negative learning experiences and do not encourage engagement. Libraries, on the other hand, are more often seen as neutral spaces that are not designed for education at only one age, and as a result, can be seen as more conducive to adult learning.” Making people use a university library has similar issues. There are a lot of emerging readers who have a real issue with higher education, because they didn’t get to go to university, for example. A surprising amount of the public library users I served took issue with me because they (rightly) assumed I was a student – and they hate students. If I’d asked them to start using the university library from now on, I’d have been laughed at – “you want me to go where and be with who?”

Writing on his blog, Mr Redwood rejected the argument that libraries helped disadvantaged people access learning – pointing out that many filled their shelves with fiction.

1) The assumption that reading fiction doesn’t constitute learning demonstrates an ignorance of the learning process and one of the many roles of literature.

2) The assumption that reading for pleasure is of no social/cultural/individual value demonstrates…ignorance.

3) The assumption that ‘disadvantaged people’ have no right to access shelves full of fiction is disgusting.

And we all know what it makes of us to assume, Mr. Redwood.

Mr Redwood said that in a half-hour visit to one he did not see anyone borrow a book.

This is an example of the problem we have when we measure the use and impact of libraries through book borrowing alone. What of the people reading newspapers? Those people using books for reference, not needing to take them home? Those who can’t take items home because the item they’re using is reference only? Those who are too scared to take library books home because they or the books will be damaged if they do? Those who aren’t allowed to join the library because they have no fixed abode so can’t borrow books but can read them in the library? Those using PCs to apply for jobs or read something or look something up? Those little children exploring the space and resources in the library, developing a love of reading and sharing that experience with their carers or other children or librarians or (safe) strangers? Do they not count?

‘I lingered over the non-fiction shelves,’ he said. ‘The books seemed oriented to middle-class hobbies like antiques and foreign travel.

1) I don’t have a problem with books being oriented to the communities the library serves. I assume the library he went into is in a fairly affluent area, because well, he’d not be seen dead somewhere rough, would he?

2) Do working class people not go abroad, now?

3) Even if these hobbies are solely pursued by the middle class (which they’re not), libraries are aspirational places where people can find out about all kinds of things they might like to get involved in but aren’t yet, in the hope that one day they can. Foreign travel might be too expensive for Mrs. X right now, but perhaps she’s thinking about saving up and wants to find out about where she could go. And so on and so on.

‘I guess the book buying had been well judged to cater for the demand of a fairly affluent local community.’

Sure, fine, if the local community is fairly affluent and there’s no mix of people. I think where we’re getting to here is that he also doesn’t think middle class people should have access to a local library, which is wrong. Public libraries are (supposed to be) equitable public spaces where people from all backgrounds can go to access a comprehensive range of resources. That includes people who are financially better off. There are lots of reasons that people who could otherwise afford to buy books might need to use a library:

1) It’s more environmentally friendly to borrow than buy

2) It’s less individualistic to want to share resources that you’ll only use once and other people can use too

3) Not all resources are available on Amazon (e.g. large print, audiobooks, specialist books)

Oh yeah, and if I’m paying up to £20 a year in tax for it, I expect to be able to access the service I’m paying for and have a legal right to. I also expect it to meet the needs of everyone, just as the NHS does.

‘Some defenders of every public library imply they are for a different clientèle. They conjure images of children from homes living on low incomes developing a passion for reading serious books borrowed from the local library.

We imply it because they are. But not exclusively, and we’d never imply that. In fact, we make a serious effort not to. And yes, we conjure these images because they’re true to life. We conjure them up from places like the Voices for the Library blog and stories pages, where people share real-life, contemporary experiences.

‘The library is seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge. I fear that in many case this is no longer true, if it ever was.’

It was, which is why Carnegie set them up. Well, it was also so the poor people would spend less time in the pub, but that counts as self-improvement. And yes, it still is true, albeit in a slightly less paternalistic way. I’d argue that the fact that libraries are seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge is the very reason people like Mr. Redwood get so antsy about them…

Mr Redwood said that, when university and school libraries are included, there may be too many libraries in many communities – meaning that councils could safely cut costs by closures.

This is specious logic. If we went down this route, the House of Lords library and the House of Commons library could be merged, or better yet, closed and we could make the Lords and the MPs go to the local Westminster public library down the road. Fair’s fair.

Edit: Actually, if we follow Redwood’s logic, members of the public should be allowed to use the Houses’ libraries – even better!

My point is, different libraries have different roles, different users and different resources. They’re also funded by different people, or certainly will be now that the government has changed the school system and higher education funding structure. Can you imagine what’d happen if the students paying £9,000 a year were told that the resources they help to pay for were to be opened up to the public? What’s the point of going to university then? Oh wait…

He wrote: ‘Maybe at a time of tighter spending controls, we need to think again about how many libraries we need in each community, where they are best placed, and how the educational libraries can be used by those who do not go to those institutions.

I’m ok with this, really, except the bit about how ‘educational libraries’ can be used by those who don’t go into them. See my point above about those who don’t go into them being the ones who don’t pay for the right to use them. Yes, we need to look at the number of public libraries we have, but we need to look at it without the pressure of ‘tighter spending controls’. If the only reason you’re getting rid of libraries is because you don’t think there’s the money for them, you’re not looking at the issue objectively and you’re not doing it right. There is a very real need for the vast majority of the libraries currently under threat of closure, and local authorities are doing a shocking job of demonstrating that need. Even if they could, they have no choice but to close them because of the huge (ideological and unnecessary) spending cuts being forced upon them at breakneck speed.

‘A system of book transfer, holiday loans and the like might ease any book shortage and cater for those who wish to read well.

Oh I’m so glad we have a libraries expert coming up with these novel and previously unconsidered issues. Thanks John.

Here is my two-penneth's worth.
Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class.

12 thoughts on “Say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.

  1. The amount of investment it would take to make school libraries suitable for the public to access would likely cancel out at ‘saving’…does he realise the difference in budgets, staffing, stock level and type between the two? A lot of school libraries in Glasgow are only staffed 14 hours a week, plus they are only open during the day, during the week, making it hard for a lot of working people to access them. Plus the security issue. And how many classrooms will have to be knocked through to make space for all the additional stock? Because schools have so much spare space, right?! Some libraries in remote, rural areas of Scotland are dual usage (e.g. in the Hebrides etc) but that reflects the size and nature of the communities there.

  2. Fabby blog post Lauren. Absolutely spot on. One other (minor) point – if I saw Redwood in the local library he’d be surrounded by hangers on, maybe journos, possibly cameras – that’s going to be offputting! I would possibly go away and come back another day (actually I’d probably go in and end up being arrested, but that’s another point), and I’ll bet that’s one reason why it was quiet.

  3. My biggest issue is that he spent half an hour in a library in an affluent area and decided all libraries only serve middle class people. I work in partnership with libraries accross the country, specifically those serving more disadvantaged communities. If he had gone to Rotherhithe Library for their incredibly successful early years sessions or seen what librarians in Nothern Ireland are doing through outreach and schools visits (to pull out just 2 examples from hundreds) it would have been impossible to reach these conclusions. Thank you for this reply – it articulates a lot of the things I was raging about myself reading the article.

  4. The assumption that fiction is somehow inferior to the, or not intellectually befitting for an aspiring underclass is just such a disgustingly Victorian attitude. Libraries aren’t just a source of learning for disadvantaged people to better themselves and avoid the workhouses – they allow one to discover the pleasure of reading stories.

    Here’s a library anecdote for Mr Redwood. I’m a similarly white, middle class, privileged male so I guess we should get on. My local library (while perhaps not having a great deal of “worthy” non-fiction) had and I imagine still has a great children’s section that furthered my voracious appetite for fiction at the tender age of 6-10. I’d visit perhaps once a month to get out all I could and read through them, often with up to 6 books on the go. Brilliantly run Summer Reading Schemes (where one would read books and write about them in exchange for stickers) were an inspired move. Of course my family could have afforded these books if I’d asked for them, but Ottakar’s could never point me in the direction of any books I would like.

    Furthermore, I used the library quite often during my teenage years as a great source for comics, sci-fi and fantasy – books I’d never consider buying (due to unavailability, social embarrassment or cost to my pocket money). Hell, the amount of money I’d have to have spent on Discworld books alone more than makes up for whatever I’ve spent in taxes and fines.

    I’d like to try and stay away from the perceived fantasy that those in favour of cutting libraries seem think librarians etc are trying to preserve/fabricate/whatever of young Matilda reading a stack of old books in a beautiful leather armchair (an image used cuttingly by Will Self on Open Book). But still, the act of borrowing a book is so fundamentally different to buying it and I don’t know why those in power fail to see this! I don’t use my local library much these days, mainly because I have access to two sizable university libraries that fill my needs and a back catalogue of novels to get through before I even consider reading anything else for pleasure. But dammit when I want to rekindle my passion for literature, I want my local library to be there.

  5. What an articulate and incisive response to a philistine’s opinion of libraries – you have the balls to stand up for something precious and have certainly earned your award as an advocate.

    I am not a librarian but spent a long time working in museums and education of which there is similar ignorance of situation and raison d’etre. You and I can speak from direct experience of working on the ground, so to speak, unlike Mr Redwood who condescended to spending 30 minutes in a public library (oh the shame!)

    Mr Redwood can hardly speak for the ‘working classes’ and know what they want from libraries. He doesn’t seem to realise that libraries are a source of inspiration and aspiration – anyone can pick up a copy of ‘The Sun’ and ‘The News of the World’ on the street but libraries provide something a universe away from all those salacious tit and bum stories. You don’t have to be middle-class to want something better than that.

    Public libraries are a sign of a civilised society, an opportunity for knowledge (including access to the internet) to be shared with everyone who cares to walk through the doors, probably for more than 30 minutes.

    Shame on you Mr Redwood!

  6. Well answered, Lauren. I am appalled by Mr Redwood’s ill-informed, ignorant comments and shocking attitude to libraries and the people he is supposed to serve.

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