Those of you who read my blog last week may already know that the UK is in a parlous state at the moment. The government is currently in the process of slicin' & dicin' any public service it can get to with a pair of indiscriminate, and overly-large, metaphorical shears. Over the last few months we've lost disability benefits, some forms of social assistance, and thousands of public sector jobs. And now the government is coming after our libraries.
Last Saturday was designated as national "Save Our Libraries Day". All over the country, protestors turned out to show their support and love for their local library services. Local authorities have been handed down massively reduced budgets, and are being forced to make quick decisions about saving money within their boroughs.
Too often, libraries are seen as an unnecessary luxury; tiny, brick buildings filled with quiet, unassuming bookish types, full to the brim of something that make lovely kindling to start a fire with, if only the librarians weren't so damn protective. In Oxfordshire, where some of the smaller branch libraries are threatened with closure in favour of one extremely expensive new-build library in the city centre, the leader of the council has resorted to emotional blackmail in response to protestors. Keith Mitchell (for that is his name), has become fond of saying that if libraries do not close, there will instead have to be cuts to services for the elderly and learning disabled. People will die, and it will all be the fault of those selfish, literate fools who wanted to keep libraries open!
It has escaped his attention, apparently, how important libraries are for the elderly, and for people with learning disabilities. It is precisely because elderly people in remote areas struggle to get around that we must keep libraries in their locality open. Many isolated elderly people rely on their local library for internet access, for social contact, and of course to borrow books. That's without mentioning the number of libraries who run reading groups for people with learning disabilities, and who share premises with mental health services. That's the great thing about libraries. They are truly egalitarian, inclusive places. Anybody can use them, even if they're just coming in to stay warm.
But behind the threatened library closures lurks a slightly more sinister ideology. The cabinet of UK government is now almost exclusively made up by a group of white middle-aged men, all of whom come from privileged backgrounds, and almost all of whom were privately educated at exclusive schools. As part of their expensive educations, each had access to excellent libraries - because their parents paid for the privilege.
A public library allows those who do not have this privilege to better themselves. Anybody with the two necessary forms of ID can walk into his or her nearest library and, using the excellent inter-library loan scheme, learn about whatever they're interested in. You don't need to be rich; you don't need to have money or family connections. All you need are two forms of identification. And all of this - the opportunity for those who don't come from rich backgrounds - is under threat because our 'leaders' cannot see why it is important.
Up and down the country, protestors turned out to support their local libraries. Hundreds of libraries are under threat. Many could be left without access to a library.
Currently, UK-based websites are awash with responses to the library protests, with many UK writers and musicians voicing their support for the cause - including Phillip Pullman, and Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers.
Myself, I organised a read-in at my local library. It was 'organised' at short notice, and yet more than 40 people showed up to show their support. We propped up our placards against the shelves, and plonked ourselves onto the library carpet for a bloody good read. We were trying to show that libraries are important. Let's hope it makes a difference.