Libraries: Equality, Potentiality and Privatisation

01 Mar

Hello everyone!  I wrote this at my blog.


Libraries have been a sizable part of my recent life, however the vast majority of my time in them hasn’t been spent as a borrower, it’s been as a Library Assistant (or a Senior Library Assistant these days).  I’ve worked in libraries for almost four years, from the quite large, like Woking’s public library, or Brighton’s Jubilee Library, or (where I am currently) University of Sussex’s academic library, to the very small, like the public libraries of Rottingdean or Mile Oak in Brighton and Hove, or the tiny five-hundred book local history and genealogy library housed in the plush, modern surroundings of the Surrey History Centre.

As you’d imagine, there are some significant differences between them.  The policies, the architecture, the technology, the book stock, the number of books, the book classifications, the staff, the opening hours… it’s a list that could go on and on.  I love libraries for their differences.  But what I love most about libraries is what’s the same.  It’s the thread that runs throughout all of these disparate institutions: the fundamental equality of libraries.

At all of the libraries I’ve worked in, when you walk through the door you are immediately levelled.  You enter a space that simultaneously demands nothing of you and yet can provide you with almost anything.  There is no question as to why you are there.  Your purpose is yours, and yours alone.  You can share it with a library assistant or librarian if you so wish, but the information is always given voluntarily, in the interest of facilitating whatever it is you want to do.

You might be putting the finishing touches to your doctoral thesis, or taking out ten Mills and Boon for your holiday abroad, or looking for group study space, or seeking directions to the local tourist attraction, or keeping out of the rain, or browsing the internet, or self diagnosing an illness, or making use of a place that you have every right to be in and doesn’t question why you appear homeless, or drunk, or distraught, or exhausted, or terrified.  Sometimes you might not know what it is you want; sometimes might not know how you will use the space that is provided.

Libraries have a very specific function, and yet by their nature they are also entirely void of function.  That’s the most beautiful thing about libraries.  That sheer potential; the physical and functional limits which simultaneously and necessarily are at any moment going to be obliterated by infinite possibility, like a haiku, or a band limiting itself to three instruments and the key of Bb minor for an entire album, or ‘Ready Steady Cook‘.

Despite the mass closures across the country we don’t actually know what Government policy is going to be regarding libraries.  That’s what’s most worrying.  The current closures are local government responses to the economic climate rather than a policy decision, and while it is certainly true that our Government has had a large hand to play in creating this economic climate (and maintaining how we perceive this economic climate) the really scary stuff is likely to be found in the first policy document regarding libraries that comes out of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

If the history of Government policy documents regarding libraries is anything to go by, and given the current Government’s violently neoliberal approach to public services, we can expect a document which advises the ‘streamlining’ or the ‘rationalising’ of library services and a document which encourages the privatisation of libraries.

‘Streamlining’ or ‘rationalising’ means the reduction of staff, and specifically the reduction of professionally qualified staff.  As anyone who has worked in libraries will know, this isn’t a new idea.  I first caught site of it working for Surrey County Council in 2008.  It’s been at every library I’ve worked at since then.  And of course it’s been going on long before I started in libraries.  However, the potential scale of this ‘streamlining’ or ‘rationalising’ is what’s really dangerous.  We know Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rests on volunteers doing pretty much everything in the public sector (an argument Philip Pullman has recently and now rather famously destroyed): this is very likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

What we haven’t seen as much in recent times is the whole-scale privatisation of libraries.  Sure, libraries themselves have outsourced all manor of services to private companies (be it IT, cleaning, acquisitions, security…) but the places themselves have so far, to the best of my knowledge, stayed in public hands.  To the corporatist state – a thing Naomi Klein describes as “a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business”, the main characteristic being “huge transfers of public wealth to private hands” – this situation is quite clearly ridiculous: think of all those assets locked away in the name of the ‘public good’! That’s profit waiting to be made!  Right?  Right?!

But fortunately, people seem to have noticed that this worrying future is showing all signs of coming to fruition.  A day of national protest occurred, and quite brilliantly small local campaigns have now on a number of occasions managed to borrow every single item within their respective libraries.  This has to be one of the most simple, elegant and profoundly political actions I’ve seen in all of the resistance to austerity measures over the past eight months.

Whether we end up in a world where we have our books issued to us at a checkout in Asda is dependent on the success of such resistance movements, the degree to which different resistance movements link together (the higher education movement looking to libraries for teach ins in response to the marketisation of our universities anyone?), and the people these movements can inspire.


Posted by Tim

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Posted by on March 1, 2011 in Please find me a home?


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