Library campaigners and local heroes

In the week that the Bristol Central Library first shut on a Wednesday, school children sat outside the padlocked gates and, I presume, waited for whoever was scheduled to pick them up at closing time. Opening hours reduced to six days a week but when the cuts get pushed through and most libraries only open for three days a week, our library will get extra hours. Ours is the only library in the city that will benefit. Those Wednesday children will be able to adjust their schedule again and wait at the café chairs or sofas for their parents.

We will get to play on the half-hull of the ss Bristol-combination-bookcase, which is the section of the children’s library that looks like a ship. Steering wheel and all. Ahoy! Don’t let your children climb, says the sign and unlike me, many parents are far less worried about whatever danger children might pose to the furniture. It is not their furniture after all.

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It is their library, though, but keeping it open hasn’t been heroic. It would have stayed open regardless. The number of visitors and usage might even go up because within weeks or months two-thirds of Bristol’s libraries will be defunded.

Other Wednesday Children at places like Knowle and St Paul’s will forget there ever were libraries in their areas. They will start to think the café/gymnasium/music practicing centre is where people pick up books from the three shelves behind all the ‘community hub’ activities. And the volunteers keeping this place going can’t be the local heroes either because they can’t afford to buy more books, or stock what people need or provide advice about legal publications for impending court cases or access to a medical journal so you can see if your son’s leukaemia has any other alternative therapies listed because you can’t afford to move to a different NHS Trust in order to get the right prescription.

But the people haven’t complained, some will say. The people were too busy worrying about the 5% increase in council tax for social care that the council now has to provide with less money. People have lost children, such as the woman who lost her daughter to suicide and a lack of mental health support so she shot off a flare in a council meeting.

Will she care about libraries now?

About the council cutting £1.4m (29% of the budget) from the libraries?

The cuts will go deeper than a third since the remaining ten libraries might be mutualised, which is what happened with some NHS PCTs. What was the consequence to these PCTs? It’s hard to tell because unlike NHS Trusts, they don’t have to answer Freedom of Information requests, nor have board meetings in public or publish minutes.

“But clues are leaking out,” wrote Caroline Molloy. “The organisations are cast adrift from the NHS, strapped for cash, forced to cut corners. Staff training has been cut. Demoralised staff have left and not been replaced.”

Some libraries will stay open but for how long? Community libraries are often short-lived and with diminished stock, services, and fewer safe spaces they give less and less. And there’s the exhaustion of volunteers.

We pick our fights and we stick to them and for many and to ourselves, we won’t be local heroes.  But over the next few weeks, our library services’ futures will be determined and many will say there are better causes when all around us people are suffering.

What would make it worth it? What would make us heroes? We lost hope long ago but those Wednesday children, and those without homes and without jobs and without the internet need libraries and maybe we can see the need to speak out where others can’t.

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Joanna Booth





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