|Meeting Defends Oxfordshire’s Libraries
A successful public meeting to defend public libraries in Oxfordshire, the home of David Cameron’s own constituency, was held by Oxfordshire Anti-Cuts Alliance on Thursday, January 20. Hundreds of people packed into an Oxford Town Hall meeting room to give their views and hear speeches by “His Dark Materials” author Philip Pullman, who lives in Cumnor, local library campaigner Stephanie Kitchen, library worker and Unison representative Steve Squibbs and Oxford East MP Andrew Smith. Local television and other media were present filming and reporting on the meeting.
The meeting was advertised under the heading of “Stopping the Cultural Vandalism of Library Closures”, a sentiment that was certainly reflected in the speeches and contributions from the floor.
That twenty out of forty-three libraries are currently threatened with closure in Oxfordshire has come as a shock to many residents of the county. The symbolic importance of such sweeping closures of public libraries has brought people in the region face to face with the profundity of the anti-social offensive. Public libraries represent to people a mark of civilised society and progress; are we really to turn our back on that? The question on people’s minds is: which way society will go? The high road of civilisation or backward?
Steve Squibbs quoted the Somerset library campaign, which described the cuts as a “short-term dash towards cultural oblivion”. Philip Pullman portrayed the Dickensian nature of the government and told the council to leave libraries alone. “They are too precious to destroy,” he said.
In this vein, speakers described the social value of libraries, from promoting literacy and reading to playing a democratic role by assisting people in finding information. In particular, the need for local as opposed to a few big central, libraries was emphasised, as part of what Andrew Smith called “the essential part of fabric of local communities” and a place where social interaction takes place.
Many speakers from the floor gave their experiences of what libraries mean to people. As Steve Squibbs pointed out, these contributions are not easy to measure on a balance sheet, but they are no less real or valuable for this.
In this respect, Philip Pullman spoke about what he called the “greedy ghost of market fundamentalism” which simply cannot understand enterprises that do not exist for profit, such as public libraries, and that this market fundamentalism is driving the closures and bidding wars, in his view. The culture of bidding for funding, which is part of what is being introduced in the running of public libraries, sets one community against another, and must result in victory for one and defeat of the other. It is authority abandoning its responsibility, he said.
The unanimous view of all who spoke was the need for unity and to oppose either the setting of one library against another or the setting of all libraries against other public services. As one speaker from the floor said, for a community to even put forward a bid would be to accept defeat. Another spoke about how a decent, humane society must recognise the right to public services.
In this context, the whole logic of the cuts to libraries in particular and the cuts to social programmes in general was questioned. Stephanie Kitchen pointed out that the cuts to the libraries amounted to less than 2% of the cut in the County Council’s budget.
Steve Squibbs spoke about the scale of threats: nearly 400 public libraries are currently threatened in the country as a whole, and in some areas the proportion is much higher. He mentioned the Isle of Wight, where nine out of the eleven libraries are under threat. The cuts are not necessary, but driven by ideology, he said, and are about making ordinary working people pay or the crisis, and pointed to the huge bailouts of the banks and the billions being paid in bankers’ bonuses.
While Andrew Smith stated that the cuts are a deliberate choice of government, and that the national debt is best brought down gradually with sustainable growth and a proper contribution from the banks, Steve Squibbs questioned the whole alleged issue of the debt, which relative to GDP is not high by historical terms, and is not particularly high compared to other big economies.
Contributions from the floor raised the issue of the rich, tax avoidance and the tax system, and the need to oppose all cuts to public services. A speaker from Save Kennington Library in particular pointed out that getting people to travel to Oxfordshire with OAP passes, which costs the County Council money, is effectively handing public money to the bus companies.
The logic of volunteerism and Cameron’s “Big Society” was also questioned. Stephanie Kitchen explained how this involved transferring funding and management to voluntary organisations. She and others spoke about how this is not realistic, and about the need to maintain libraries as a publically owned service.
People spoke about the importance of paid staff and valuing the librarian. Philip Pullman in particular denounced the “patronising nonsense” of asserting that volunteers can do the whole job. “If anyone has the time and energy to work for nothing for a good cause, they are already doing it,” he said. “People who want to serve the public will be allowed to bid for a central pot, sit up and beg for it like little dogs and wag their tails when they get a bit.”
The meeting ended with a positive spirit, with speakers describing the campaigns springing up and the action being organised, such as the national day of read-ins, the national demonstration against cuts in March, and other local actions.