Monday, 7 February 2011

The cruel futility of hope?

I'm feeling a bit Monday morningish today. Perhaps it's because the Pittsburgh Steelers were beaten in the Superbowl last night (well you've got to support the Steelers if you live in Sheffield) but mainly it's a dip following the euphoria of Save our Libraries Day and the Shush-In for Sheffield Libraries. The event on Saturday was really amazing and although we obviously staged managed some aspects of the event, the response to my "let the wild rumpus begin" call was spontaneous and enthusiastic. You can see the full video of the event made by the Green Party here or highlights of the Shush-In here . Coverage in the local paper is here.

But it is the morning after the night before so we have to take a sober look at what happened. Of course the Steelers should have run more on first-down but to return to libraries I think that most of us know that the demonstrations, read-ins, shush-ins and passionate arguments from readers and authors will not in themselves make the decision-makers change their minds about library cuts. However, what we have done in Sheffield and elsewhere is to put libraries into the media and raised their profile. We must never forget that many people, especially those with overall responsibility for the financing of libraries, generally pay little or no attention to them. What the national day of action has done is to create a window of opportunity while libraries are in the headlines to get our message across.

What is that message? The core message is that expressed by so many library users, writers, librarians and a scattering of celebrities on the value and importance of libraries to both individual, communities and civilisation as a whole. However we also have to be quite cynical in framing arguments that will appeal to the decision makers in local government. I suggest that the following arguments would hit home.

1. Libraries do not cost much to run. The budget for Sheffield Libraries is less than 1% of the total city budgets so cutting libraries does not help other service avoid cuts,

2. Libraries are one of the most popular (if not the most popular) services provided by local authorities. Many elected members already feel that they have been made the scapegoat for the Government's cuts policy so why court even further pain for so little gain?

3. It might be the case that cuts are inevitable and that everyone must share in the pain but this should be based on outcomes and not inputs. In other words it is not a case of looking at a spreadsheet and saying that the column headed "Libraries" must take the same percentage cut as the columns headed "elderly", "learning disabled" or "pot-holes". Authorities should consider the outcome on the people affected. The cuts will hurt the elderly, people with special needs and those who are losing their jobs - and it is precisely these people who need library services the most. Libraries are often their last remaining hope, a light when all others have failed. It might be just as a source of entertainment and escapism (and why not! We want bread and roses too!). It might be a source for information (including health information) when other services have closed. It might be for lifelong learning, training or help to set up in business as ways of escaping from unemployment. Above all libraries provide ideas, inspiration and hope. We could be very cynical and say that the last thing people need today is hope because they are bound to be disappointed, but I don't believe that local councillors want to take hope away from their communities.Or do they?

Keith Mitchell, leader of Oxfordshire County Council, has said that calls to exempt libraries from cuts were "a call to heap more cuts on care of the elderly, learning disabled and those with mental health problems. Have they thought through the impact of their messianic message about literature on the most vulnerable in our society?"

The answer Mr Mitchell is Yes! We have thought about the impact of our message on the most vulnerable in our society and that is precisely why we believe that libraries should be exempt from cuts. Have you thought about the impact of denying your community hope of a better future?


Ms. Yingling said...

I found your blog through the save the libraries activity, and think it's so funny that so far away, there are still Steelers fans. That was always my brother's team growing up, but we only lived an hour away from Pittsburg. I will think hopeful thoughts for your libraries.

Carl said...

The Shush-In for Sheffield Libraries featured in the introduction to today's Call You & Yours programme on Radio 4. My comments at the end of the blog apply equally to the Mayor of Doncaster

Carl said...

Two events may be of interest:
The Edge 2011 Conference, 'Tough Times, Tough Talk', takes place in Edinburgh's Caledonian hotel on 3 and 4 March.
For further details contact:
Liz McGettigan
Libraries and Information Services Manager
The City of Edinburgh Council
0131 529 7894

Library Campaign briefing from SINTO

Carl said...

Radio 4 You & Yours programme (BBC iPlayer): #savelibraries Features Annie Mauger and recording of the Shush-In event at Sheffield Central Library