Home > big society, cuts, libraries > Libraries Gave Us Power

Libraries Gave Us Power

Eight weeks ago today I started my new job at the library. After 15 years in housing, spending the last two years at my old job being subject to bullying, corruption and lies, and eight months on the dole following redundancy, I was slightly anxious at what to expect. Two months later and it’s all going well: I like the work, like the people I work with, and like feeling happy at getting up in the morning. Sort of.

Don’t believe that working in a library is an easy ride – I’m based in the borough’s ‘flagship’ library which is a large two floored building with the day’s work being split hour by hour on a timesheet. This means shifting between floors, working in the back office, searching for books requested from all over London, and of course, shelving. All this and the sheer scale of the building means that we cover a fair distance during the average day, let alone the 11 hour shifts we do three times each fortnight. It’s tiring but in a good way, and the variety helps the day go quickly. I really can’t remember being bored at all, even when shelving!

The main aspect of the job is dealing with the public, helping them to get what they want or need. In this sense it’s not vastly different from working in housing, albeit at a different level of want/need, and no-one has threatened to rip my throat out. It has confirmed what I already knew really, that working within a public service is a kind of vocation for me – I enjoy being part of an organisation that seeks to help people, that is an essential part of local society. I had an idea of what a modern library service provides but working within it has shown me just how far it has moved on from ‘merely’ stamping books.

Last week a bloke came in looking rather desperate as he needed to email a CV to a prospective employer. I gave him a form and within minutes he was joined and had free access to our computers – I was able to tell him about the library near him where there is a dedicated service for the unemployed with extra time allowed on the computers and advice given on CVs, applications etc. – he was also pleased at being able to borrow books and left with a smile on his face having despatched his CV.

The library also provides services for adult learners, older people who want to get on the intwerwebs, and study spaces/resources for students. Another important aspect is encouraging children to read and weekly sessions are held. When I’m on the top floor and can hear a chorus of young voices singing it sounds oddly nostalgic, like a scene from a 50s/60s British B & W film.

On a personal level my new job has done wonders for me in terms of my mental (and physical!) health! I feel more settled than I have in over three years and the people close to me have noticed the difference. On a more general level my belief in public services and what they provide to society has been strengthened, as has my absolute resistance to those seeking to destroy them in the name of a ‘deficit’ caused not by overspending, but a corrupt and greedy ruling elite who shit on us and then tell us we have to find the money to clean the mess up.

Libraries are currently being threatened all over the country to the extent that there are now over 20,000 ‘volunteers’ helping to run them. This is hailed by those on the right as a wonderful example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, but in fact is a reflection on people being forced to run a service rather than lose it. And there are demographic concerns. As Tony Hoare of Chalfont St Giles library said in Private Eye: “Trying to follow the same model in a busy town library in a deprived area would, I think, not succeed”. This is not to say that there wouldn’t be the will, but there is a world of difference in the services needed and resources available in affluent Bucks with its time rich residents, and more urban areas where the majority of people are more in need of library services than being able to provide them. This, of course, isn’t taken into account by the government with its one-size-fits-all ‘remedies’ heavily weighted towards its own constituency.

I’ll end with this, again cribbed from Private Eye:

6 Myths About Why We Don’t Need Libraries Any More (and why we do)

People don’t go to libraries any more
New government figures show that 40% of adults regularly visit libraries, and 80% of children use libraries regularly.

Everyone is online
Millions of people haven’t got home internet including 3m children and many older people. (I can personally vouch for the popularity of our computer services – one of our libraries in a more deprived area has even opened an annexe in a shop to provide for demand)

Everything is online
Using basic reference sources and journals means buying multiple subscriptions. Vast amounts of fiction, historic documents, out-of-print material and even government information has not been digitised and probably never will be (not forgetting that e-resources available may not be compatible with proprietory hardware such as the Kindle).

Books are cheap
Supermarket paperbacks and charity shops offer a limited range of cheap fiction, which is still costly to many pensioners, people on benefits or children reading faster than pocket money will cover. Up to date hardbacks or textbooks can be prohibitively expensive for many.

A library service is not about buildings
It isn’t only about buildings. But there’s high demand for study space (last summer at my library there wasn’t a clear patch of floor), one to one advice on finding information and using the internet, meeting places and a place to go that doesn’t cost money.

Fewer libraries mean better services
Travelling to a big, intimidating building miles away is difficult, if not impossible, for those who need libraries most – young families, the old, disabled, poor and schoolchildren.

And remember, you really don’t want to upset some librarians…

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Categories: big society, cuts, libraries
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