The struggle to save the community libraries and the Library of Birmingham has been going on for several years now. The campaign over the latter began in the spring of 2013, even before it was opened by Malala in September of that year, against the background of rumours of private control.
One aspect of the campaigning has been to highlight the importance of these institutions and to oppose the cultural vandalism of the constant attacks upon them. This has been pioneered by the Friends of the Library of Birmingham, Slaney Street, the young occupiers of the LoB under their slogan of “A People’s Library”, the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage and others. (Links at end)
It is fair to say that this argument has been won. Nobody denies the worth of these institutions; any talk of them being replaced by the internet, tablets and bookshops has died down. The LoB in particular is, or potentially is, so much more than a big building with books in it.
All kinds of activities can be hosted in libraries; events and services for children such as the Young Readers’ Literature Festival, promoting books and reading, such as the Young Poet Laureate Scheme, or by organising exhibitions, such as the highly successful World War I exhibition and Stones and Bones, with popular family dinosaur events.
And then of course there are the archives, containing the memory of the city.
No, it is not the worth of these institutions that is in doubt. This view was reinforced by the overwhelming response of the public against the proposal to drastically cut the funding to the LoB in particular, during the council consultation.
What is in doubt is the will of politicians to save them.
The consultation response was ignored, and the cuts were voted through anyway. The opening hours of the LoB have been slashed from 73 to 40, 100 staff are threatened with job loss, and the community libraries are increasingly cash strapped and threatened with “mutual” status, a step away from council control and a step towards a private solution.
Libraries are a public service; they cannot run at a profit or even break even without public money from general taxation. Once you break the link with the council, they face a downward spiral.
So what about the other aspect of campaigning; letters, emails, petitions, articles, lobbying of councillors, questions to the full council meetings, press releases, radio interviews and so on? These things, demanding a change of financial heart, have all been done a-plenty.
Then there have been the public events; meetings, rallies and demonstrations. Springhill, and West Heath libraries have seen quite a few of these, and so now has the LoB itself. There was the big rally about the archives back in January, then two outdoor rallies and a demonstration up New St.
There have been regular Friday occupations of the LoB from 5 till 8 pm by young library users. There was the occupation organised by FoLoB itself.
“Not our fault”
But, apart from FoLoB, the young students or the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage, what have the Councillors themselves done?
The Labour dominated council has ignored the campaigning as well as the consultation and voted through the cuts. All we get is the hand-wringing and the reply of “what can we do? It is all the government’s fault”.
While it is true that most of the city’s finances come from central government and the previous coalition government slashed the amount, there was no promise by Labour to restore the cuts if elected last May, and no resistance was offered by the majority ruling Labour group in Birmingham. And remember, this Labour group was elected with no manifesto commitment to attack the library service, and on a pretty small vote anyway. They had and have no mandate. So the finger-pointing runs hollow.
Time for a change
What they could have done was to take the lead in the campaigning; organising the rallies and demonstrations themselves, building up enough public support for a vote against the cuts in the council chamber. Instead, it was left to others.
And then, to add insult to injury, not one councillor attended the two rallies or the demonstration over the LoB to give support. The presence of just a few with some supporting speeches would have made a big difference. But when they were provided with a perfect opportunity to actually do something, they were not there.
Hopefully, it is not too late for some councillors to break with the BCC cuts and privatisation agenda and start leading some resistance in the council chamber. With the growth in support for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, pledged to move away from austerity, it is time to think again.
Following the success of the SNP and the Green Party in opposing austerity during the General election campaign, added to the resonance that Corbyn is generating, is it not time to finally say “enough”?
Labour Party members, especially those who intend casting a vote for Corbyn, could call on Councillors to join the campaign over the city library service, by joining the protests and rebelling in the Council chamber itself when necessary.