Ealing Council announced they wanted to close seven local libraries – giving a phoney option of running the libraries by volunteers, without proper funding. There is resistance from some UNISON folks and we try to organise meetings against these cuts. [1] A different current council project to encourage the formation of so-called ‘domiciliary care coops’ who would then bid for NHS contracts is another example of Labour’s attempt lower social reproduction costs by appealing to some kind of volunteer or cooperative ethic. 

The library struggle is of course about defending jobs and refusing to be blackmailed into volunteer work. But it is also about defending working class social spaces. In our area (Greenford, Southall, Perivale) houses are crammed, people need some space to get out, meet other people, have some quiet for homework or reading. These social spaces are not only vital – they are actually life-saving. There is a good book on the significance of ‘social infrastructure’ (libraries, clubs, churches etc.), analysing the tragic heat wave in Chicago in 1995, where over 700 mainly older poor people died within two days. The same poverty and racial composition given, in areas where there was hardly any ‘social infrastructure’ several times more people died compared to equally poor areas who had more of this infrastructure – because people were left alone at home. [2] 

Ealing council is pretty good at shutting things down, from nurseries to local job centres. [3] At the same time they sell off land to real estate developers – with the usual 10 per cent ‘affordable housing’ fig leaf. When it comes to ‘affordable’, the planning committee assumes that £29,000 a year is the average income in this area, which might be true, but would only be a proof of the major wage differentials between the small local middle-class and the masses of people on minimum wages. The local leisure centre is about to be demolished and the council land around it to be sold off. [4] Brownfield sites in Southall are being sold off and the development is causing toxic air-pollution. [5] The most recent development dispute affects residents in Perivale, who are worried about the impact of building a 22-storey apartment block in their area. Some of us went to the local ward forum, and although we don’t have too much time for people who complain about future parking problems, the meeting was actually funny – we were just waiting for people to get their yellow vests out… 

H. and me went to the ‘Perivale Ward Forum’ and were surprised that instead of the 22-storey development project we found the ‘Update from Perivale Safer Neighbourhood Team’ and the Ealing BMX Club on their agenda. The room was packed with over 100 people, mostly retired folks, people were standing. And they were all there for the high rise issue. Meeting started with the three councillors trying to justify why the development thing was not on the agenda: application hasn’t gone through, so no substance to debate. People were not taking this and things got pretty rowdy, lots of booing and everything. The councillors then said that given that two of them are on the planning committee for the development and that they would have to be impartial, discussing the development here would mean that they could not vote on the committee. “If we listen what you are saying we can’t vote on the committee” – people were quick to point out the absurdity of this, as these councillors should represent the local community and their concerns. In the end one of the left during the debate, the other stayed and stepped down from his committee position. After the development point was over 3/4 of people left. The library point was introduced by councillor: we have to change the way libraries are managed, we are looking for volunteer groups – instead of saying that they want to shut libraries and that volunteer groups are a phoney ‘option’. We left leaflets about the library campaign, they were more or less gone when we left…”

Ealing council obviously passes the buck and blames central government austerity measures. And while people might say that Labour in Ealing has always been more on the New Labour side of the party, things don’t look much different in the ‘Corbynista’-council of Haringey, where the council finally agreed to go through with a very disputed gentrification project. [6] 

For independent working-class self-defense!

*** Report from a friend who used to work in a local west-London library 

“I don’t need libraries, that stuff is all on my Ipad now”

Close to 650 libraries have closed in the UK since 2010. Some that remain “open” rely on volunteers and have 0 paid staff, and need grants and donations to run. 

In 2018 alone 130 libraries were shut down. More than 700 staff lost their jobs while the number of volunteers is now in excess of 50,000. 

What Ealing Council plan to do is the same story that has happened across the UK. Examples in Barnet, Lambeth show that community pressure can save jobs and keep open buildings but the drive to remove paid workers continues. 

Where did libraries come from?

The concept of the public library, free at the point of use was pushed by The Free Library Movement, Victorian philanthropists aided by sections of the Chartist movement who worked for “improvement of the public” primarily through education and other “civilising” initiatives. The Libraries Act of 1850 which was put forward by Liberal MPs and backed by a free libraries pioneer Edward Edwards setup the first public libraries run by boroughs and with government funding. As capitalism allowed workers to fight for shorter working hours, workers free time and how they used it became a major cause for concern and a site of tension. While Tory politicians believed that providing further working class education was a danger (well…) the Liberals had a strong patrician streak which wanted to raise standards, albeit within limits, and libraries and access to books, particularly religious texts was one way of doing it.

Even at the beginning the Liberals were forced to compromise on their plans, only boroughs with a population over 10,000, at the time mostly cities would be able to open libraries. There would need to be a local referendum of ratepayers to approve any plans and the ability to raise more tax to pay for them was restricted. And the money taken from tax could not be used to pay for the primary resource, books. Two years later the first public library was opened and Manchester became the first place to have something like the libraries we would see today.

Libraries today are governed by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 which is supposed to put a duty on local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service”. This is about the only thing other than resistance by library workers and communities that means many library services run at all. Even by the year 2000 only 15 libraries were open across the UK for more than 60 hours. When closures come, it’s evenings and weekends that are cut first. The time when more workers are likely to be able to get to them. 

Library buildings have often been not fit for purpose, reflecting when housing was in different places, being poor to access for parents with young children and crap for the disabled. 

But these arguments have been used to continue the chronic underfunding of them while failing to act to deal with or even mitigate against their limitations. Local politicians have often promised to provide alternative services and shut down “failing” libraries and replace them, but with what?

The quote at the top of this article gives the view of Peter Box CBE, the Leader of Wakefield Council. For many middle class former library users, access to books and information on their smartphones tablets and kindle makes the role of the library redundant. For them it was always about a transactional relationship to get the books and information, rarely about the space of the library itself. 

 Libraries provide a system of support for working class people well beyond their formal remit. Since the destruction of local government under the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010 the services and informal functions of libraries have increased. 

When I worked in a library in west London it was one of the only free, accessible and warm places in the area. While the stats show that book lending and borrowing are down (and when you aren’t getting new stock in, what would you expect?) libraries are the one place you can go to use a computer for free, borrow the Life in the UK handbook, or get newspapers in Punjabi, Urdu and Tamil.

The decision then to close several libraries in Ealing is not unexpected. Ealing and other Council’s had already outsourced the services back in 2013. Libraries make no money, and if you are a private contractor, you want to make money! Their usage is falling and they increasingly serve people that Councils or the government don’t have any interest in. It is only legislation that has stopped some councils closing their services altogether. All too often closures or the threats of closure has seen the libraries taken over for local community use by volunteers. Communities need those libraries but we shouldn’t do the cutters job for them. 

Having libraries reliant on the community means finding their own source of funding, providing their own stock and only being open when volunteers are available. This pool of often middle class, often older volunteers are the people who have the time and resources to keep the libraries running and don’t need to work themselves. Of course they are then free to do what they want and their vision for the community will not necessarily reflect the actual needs of the areas they serve, or do some of the more difficult tasks that staffed and funded libraries are meant to do. One of the biggest consequences of volunteer run libraries is on children. A staffed library can have unaccompanied children from about the age of 11, but in one run by volunteers this is rarely the case

And even the traditional use of libraries, reading, helps to reduce stress levels, reading groups provide a social activity to take people away from the isolation and drudgery of the workplace, and the home.

The US communist and writer Richard Wright summed up the role of books he could access from a library (after leaving the South where Blacks couldn’t go there) like this; “It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself. […] It had been only through books – at best, no more than vicarious cultural transfusions – that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively vital way. Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books; consequently, my belief in books had risen more out of a sense of desperation than from any abiding conviction of their ultimate value.”

Some observations as a library worker:

Every week parents, mostly mums, Punjabi, Pakistani and Tamil would bring their babies/children to story and rhyme time. They rarely spoke much English but this was a chance for their kids to learn the language, to socialise with other parents and access books for free

Low paid workers, travellers, homeless people all need access to the internet and despite home internet access being up to 90% for many workers this means access on a smartphone. Applying for Universal Credit, sending off documents to the Home Office, job applications often require being able to scan in documents, type out long bits of information. All of which is much easier in front of a desktop computer with a reliable internet connection

Library workers once knew more. The job of the library worker, mostly library assistant is distinct from the once more prevalent job of the librarian. Librarians were trained to access information, help with complex enquiries that can now apparently be handled by google. Library Assistants are customer service workers who happen to deal in books and time on computers, like working in retail.

Libraries provide the books in the languages of the communities in the area, in Hayes books in Farsi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Arabic and Somali could all be found for free. For the elderly family of people who have come to the UK, often with little to no English this was the place they could find novels that connected them with the places they left.

When the council closed down a day centre for disabled adults they were told to come to the library to occupy their time. More and more people with complex needs, mental health problems and the vulnerable come to libraries as they are one of the last places open that won’t move people on. 

Despite working around books, you don’t get time to read, unless it’s stories to kids, most of the time you are doing shelving, re-categorising a book or making a display for Healthy Heart Week or the local flower show. Just like any other workplace, you are alienated from your work and I probably read fewer books while constantly being around them, than in any other job I have had.

During school holidays libraries are at their “best” and “worst” hundreds more kids would come into the library to take part in a reading challenge, reading six books over the course of the holidays and getting some prizes each time. During this time workers were expected to run an event for the kids on a theme with suggested games, arts and craft and other activities to do. These were all free and would get quickly booked up especially by families stuck with kids for 6 weeks while they are still working. 

For older people, isolated and often along books can also help with more serious mental health issues such as dementia. Evidence suggests that reading can reduce the risk of dementia by 35%. It was clear to me that there were a number of people who used the library whose only contact not about their health (with carers for instance) was the conversation they would have when coming and taking out a book.