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Campaigners debate at Speak Up for Libraries

Library supporters have debated the idea of launching a nationally orchestrated legal case against Ed Vaizey and the DCMS for his failure to intervene in local authorities' library closure plans.

 

The debate came at the Speak Up for Libraries conference organised by library campaigners on Saturday (10th November). Held at the offices of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) in central London, the event saw more than 100 people gathering to swap stories of their local campaigns, and share advice on how to take their battles forward.

 

CILIP president Phil Bradley kicked off the day by describing the vital roles libraries had played in the USA during recent Hurricane Sandy, acting as safe havens for their local communities. He added: "Just because we're not facing a hurricane, that doesn't mean we're not facing similar devastation."

 

He also poured scorn on the Local Government Association's response to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee report on library closures, raising cheers of derision at their embracing of libraries in "phone boxes".

 

He then emphasised what would become one of the themes of the day: "We don't just need to speak up for libraries, we need to shout out loud. The time of being silent is very, very long ago."

 

Library campaigner Alan Gibbons called the government's handling of library issues a "scandal". He compared Britain with countries like South Korea, India and Bolivia which are all investing heavily in libraries, and pointed out the essential role libraries play in literacy and helping the next generation, saying that 80% of those arrested in the riots last year had poor literacy.

 

He attacked culture secretary Maria Miller, saying: "Her first act in office was refusing to intervene in the cases of three library authorities facing cuts of the magnitude of the Wirral, where an inquiry was held under the Labour government."

 

He also rounded on the contradictions between the DCMS and Arts Council England over who superintends the library service, describing them as "two ends of a donkey fighting for a stomach".

 

Gibbons' speech ended by urging library campaigners not to battle against one another over qualms about volunteering, but to see library cuts as part of a wider austerity programme that had to be tackled.

 

Following the opening speeches, delegates divided among different workshops, which included librarian Ian Anstice making the case for and against library volunteers, and lawyers from Public Interest Lawyers describing the process for bringing judicial reviews against a local authority. 

 

They pointed out how the 1964 museums and library act makes clear the duty councils have to maintain adequate stocks, and also warned how campaign groups could be expected to contribute to legal costs should the battle go to court.

 

Elizabeth Ash, one of the organisers of the day, said: "We've had a hundred people here today, which is a great number. There's also been a really good mix, which lots of actual librarians as well as people like UNISON."

 

Speak Up For Libraries is a coalition of groups, including Campaign for the Book, Voices for the Library, CILIP and the Library Campaign. In March, they organised a lobby of Parliament, while this was their first conference.

 

The day ended with speeches from authors.

 

Bali Rai, who writes YA fiction, gave a personal speech about the role libraries had played in his own life. He said: "If you want an example of what happens if you have a healthy, vibrant public sector, I'm an example of that person."

 

He added: "If it weren't for the libraries in Leicester, I would not be here today. People who say, oh, you're losing a few books, so what, you're losing a place for old people to read the paper, so what – it's about so much more." He also said the campaign for libraries could not be separated from the fight for school libraries, saying it was "scandalous" that there was no statutory provision for them.

 

Children's author Philip Ardagh ended the day with his thoughts on the importance of libraries. He said: "To me, a library isn't a library without a proper, professional librarian."

 

He added: "If we didn't have libraries, we would have to invent them."