Thursday, 24 February 2011

World Book Week

Next Thursday (3rd March) is World Book Day. Then Saturday 5th March is World Book Night. Though Lauren’s latest blog post reveals that the two are (surprisingly) unrelated events, both are very worthwhile and are great opportunities to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with perhaps the greatest invention in the world – the book.

The following information is provided by Natasha Worswick of Book Aid International:

World Book Day is on Thursday 3rd March this year and it’s basically an opportunity for people to celebrate the education, imagination and information that books provide us all with. There are a whole host of events and activities you can get involved with, whatever your age. They include Meet Talk Give, a fun, easy fundraising activity for reading groups and libraries as well as initiatives for toddlers and school age children.

So where's the best place to start finding out more? Take a look at Book Aid International's blog for a start. You'll find all sorts of fun stuff, competitions and more.

You'll also find details there of just why World Book Day matters so much. Book Aid International is one of the charities that benefits from the day and it enables them to make a massive difference. They depend on people’s support to bring books, and all that they represent, to communities in sub-Saharan Africa and the Occupied Territories of Palestine. Check out some of the videos, and you'll see for yourself just what amazing work they do.

I really hope you'll think that World Book Day is worthy of your support. It's a chance to have some fun, and Book Aid International is a really worthy cause for all book lovers. 

So that’s all good. I’ll be making a display at work to liven up the library and perhaps get our users to appreciate the role of books in peoples’ lives. 

Then Saturday 5th March is World Book Night when thousands of people will be giving out hundreds of thousands of books to people all over the country. There has been some controversy about it but I think that distributing books for free is a worthy idea – if only as a one-off – and it might make people remember that books are available for free at any public library. My dad is very excited to be giving out copies of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

It’s going to be an exciting week for bibliophiles.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Dramatic North Yorkshire campaign progress

After my last post, everything that I wrote quickly (and annoyingly) became irrelevant: last week saw dramatic changes to the plans for North Yorkshire’s libraries. On the 16th of February, the Conservative leader of the council, Cllr. John Weighell, made this statement after a budget meeting: 

It is very gratifying in a way that people value our library service so much. The consultation on libraries hasn’t finished. We will not end up in a situation where we are… as part of the consultation… it will be a very different end result to what is being consulted upon. I can’t go too much further in saying exactly how but we will certainly look to spread the pain much more widely than the consultation said and we will look to make other savings rather than closing libraries. What I’m personally looking for is to have libraries operating in at least all the market towns with some volunteer help to the professional staff not just leaving volunteers to run a library and forgetting about them but to work together with the professional library staff and volunteers throughout all our libraries that we can possibly keep open. And by that I mean the market towns primarily. 
You can hear him saying those words and me reacting to them on BBC iPlayer here. The market town libraries currently under threat are: Bedale, Bentham, Boroughbridge, Easingwold, Helmsley, Ingleton, Kirkbymoorside, and Leyburn. The revised plans mean that North Yorkshire would retain 26 libraries out of the current 42 (62% of the region’s libraries). Therefore the council still plans to close, merge, or volunteer-run 16 libraries. 

On the 18th, it was reported that the Council have set up a £650,000 fund to buy more time for planning the future of the library service. It is implied that the fund is intended to keep libraries open while preparations are made for handing them over to volunteers or part-volunteer, part-professional staff. 

From a larger perspective, the week saw good news for Doncaster as the 14 threatened libraries were given a 12-month reprieve and the council backed away from their previous plans. However there was bad news in Gloucestershire where the council blatantly ignored the will of the people by voting through the library cuts and in Surrey where the council revealed their plans for the library service. On the 19th, the Yorkshire Post reported that Yorkshire as a broad region faces the loss of a fifth of its libraries with 65 currently under threat. The total for the UK now stands at 526 libraries under threat.

The North Yorkshire news should be treated as a victory: the council is backing down from its previously hard-line stance and is, unlike Gloucestershire Council, listening to its people. However this battle in the ‘Great Library War’ is not yet over. It seems the council is now pushing volunteer-run libraries: these are no substitute for libraries run by professional staff and while it isn’t clear what level of volunteer support the council expects, we must be wary of the plans set out. The libraries have a 12-month reprieve during which time we may become complacent. We need to keep up the good work and remind councillors again and again that we value our libraries. If we do this, we’ll be able to save our libraries like others have saved our forests.

There is a public meeting tonight on Harrogate-area libraries (Starbeck and Bilton) at St. Andrew’s Church in Starbeck at 1730. If you can make it to show your support, please come along.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Further North Yorkshire campaign progress

The consultation period on North Yorkshire libraries ends in little over a week. The situation is developing rapidly and the council’s reactions are beginning to become apparent. For more information, please see the Save North Yorkshire Libraries site put together by Kirkbymoorside town councillor, Martin Brampton.

The county has seen a number of successful events where the public have clearly demonstrated their opposition to the plans: Bentham Library staged a read-in which attracted support from playwright Alan Bennett; hundreds of people protested at Bilton Library and marched through Pateley Bridge; people across the county have been starting petitions and collecting signatures. On Save Our Libraries Day, hundreds of people attended the read-in at Easingwold Library (local author Tim Hopgood has some great photos here) . Footage from the read-in was shown on BBC News all day and I was interviewed on BBC Radio York about the impact of the event. As Beverley Knights of the Friends of Easingwold Library campaign said, “It’s the Big Society biting back”: communities telling government exactly what they want rather than being told what they should want.

In light of this clear opposition to the plans for the library service, the council have begun to respond. On February 4th, it was reported that the library service will be given a reprieve of a year before any closures take place: this is partly to respond to the public backlash and partly to finalise plans for creating volunteer-run libraries. In fact, the council’s position has moved from threats of closure to advocacy of volunteer-run libraries. This morning the council released this statement by Cllr. Chris Metcalfe – the Conservative councillor in charge of adult and library services. The statement shows the council’s intention to develop libraries run by volunteers from the local community. Though it mentions “positive discussions... with local communities”, there is no mention of the widespread opposition to the plans, the events on February 5th, or the planned amount of professional staff.

Although an open volunteer-run library is better than a closed library, it needs to be understood that a library service run by volunteers is not an adequate replacement for a professional service. Fellow Voices member, Ian Clark, wrote this article for ORG Zine on why librarians cannot be replaced by volunteers (in a similar vein, I wrote this article for ORG Zine on the origins of Voices for the Library). Ian has also written on the money that councils are holding back for ‘Big Society projects’. Instead of destroying a professional library service, councils should be looking to save money by examining wastage and cutting administrative budgets.

Voices for the Library recently published data which reveals the overall success of North Yorkshire’s libraries and the specific success of many libraries previously earmarked for closure (we have Friends of Easingwold Library to thank for the Freedom of Information request which made this data available). It also demonstrates that the library closures will disproportionately affect vulnerable people across the county. Last July, North Yorkshire County Council produced this slideshow about turning libraries into volunteer-run libraries. Among the problems it discusses are that volunteer libraries take longer than expected to set up, have much-reduced opening hours (North Stainley Village Hall open only 6 core hours a week), have high ICT costs, and require a team of enthusiastic volunteers and supporters.

North Yorkshire deserves a professional library service. Isolated rural communities deserve the links to information and communication that local libraries provide. David Cameron wants libraries to “wake up to the world of new technology” and this means appointing staff trained in the use of new technology rather than volunteers who may not have appropriate IT experience or the budget to develop new library technologies. Please continue to support your local libraries, send your stories and comments to the Voices for the Library team, write to your local councillors and MPs, and attend public meetings (on Monday, I will be attending a public meeting in Starbeck which the council has refused to attend). Keep supporting your libraries and – like in Northamptonshire – we can make the council change its plans.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The poverty of nations

There’s a contradiction at the heart of the Coalition Government’s attitude towards capital. More than ever, we are told that money is a core value and simultaneously individuals are told to value money less.

The money contradiction

On the one hand, massive cuts are being made to save money. Libraries, hospitals, leisure centres, Post Offices, and miscellaneous front-line services are taking cuts and being closed because the national debt apparently must be reduced. Last week, it was reported that rural public transport links are to be cut because they are making a loss and being subsidised by profit-making urban transport links. The implication is that money is a more important concept than others: education, knowledge, communication, security, and leisure are all superseded by the need to generate money. Profit stands above any other metric as a measure of success. If something is unprofitable, we are told, it is unsuccessful.

On the other hand, the Coalition’s flagship idea – the Big Society – requires its practitioners to show detachment from money and a keen desire to engage in non-profitable pursuits. The Big Society aims to get communities to take over public services which are currently run by local or central government. In this spirit, people are being told to volunteer more, to give their time and skills freely, and to help their communities by working for nothing with few resources.

The Big Society concept was dealt two blows last week
The issue of bankers’ bonuses has become a battleground for this kind of debate about capital. On the one hand, we are told that bankers deserve their bonuses because they have valuable skills that deserve monetary compensation. On the other hand, Big Society volunteers are told that they should put their valuable skills to work for free. The difference lies in the skills: a banker is skilled at making money by manipulating existing systems; a childcare worker is skilled at raising and educating children. Again, this indicates that monetary gain is the value most prized by society.

Debating and defining

This cognitive dissonance and this widening gulf between those who value money and those who don’t prevents proper debate and real argument. Increasingly it seems, debates involve parties arguing past one another: this is a generalisation but it generally involves liberals on one hand arguing for values beyond money and conservatives on the other arguing that money and profit need to be preserved. One of the core lessons of philosophy is that to debate properly one must first define one’s terms: our current political and ideological debate is hampered by the different parties using different definitions and different value-judgements about money.

The value (or lack thereof) of money

This part is my opinion and involves, as mentioned above, a liberal defining his terms by arguing for values beyond money. In my opinion, society is unbalanced by the extreme valuing of money.

Images like this alter our perception
of what 'success' is
The latter half of the 20th Century in the West has seen the acquisition of money become the driving force of many individuals. Part of this due to aspirational television and other media coverage raising our lifestyle expectations. Part of it is due to the continued unabated success of those who seek extreme wealth – including those who do so immorally or illegally. We’ve now reached a point where all political debate comes down to money, all argument is reduced to cost/benefit analysis, and all values are subservient to the pursuit of self-interest encoded in the capitalist terms of money.

As Philip Pullman pointed out in his brilliant speech on public libraries and market fundamentalism, there are other values besides money. There is knowledge, education, learning, the pursuit of intelligence, community, charity, sharing, togetherness, friendship, sentimentality. Money is valued so highly because our whole system of living is based on it but we shouldn’t forget that it needn’t be this way. We needn’t allow every discussion to be degraded to discussion of profit and loss. As the example closest to my heart, libraries are valuable because they enable learning and knowledge: if they cost money, so what? If profitable enterprises subsidise them, so what?

Hidden within the heart of the Big Society concept is a good idea: the idea of working together and rising above monetary concerns for the good of community. This idea sounds like socialism but the policy the Coalition is pushing is traditional Conservative ideology. The good idea at the core is hidden by ideological actions: shrinking the state, cutting public sector budgets to reduce the deficit, and shifting responsibility for state-run services onto individuals and communities. I believe that a large state should support communities and values beyond money: the Big Society idea argues that a small state should generate money and leave communities to support themselves.

There are things in this world that should be preserved precisely because they transcend monetary concerns.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Save Our Libraries Day - Yorkshire

Saturday will be an important day. On Saturday, people across the UK will voice their displeasure at the proposed closure of over 400 libraries. Saturday February 5th is to be Save Our Libraries Day: there will be events, protests, and read-ins held in hundreds of libraries. Please see the CILIP website for information on what you can do and see the National Save Libraries event on Facebook to find where your nearest event is.

Due to the high number of closures proposed for the area, Yorkshire is hosting many events. On January 21st, the Harrogate Advertiser launched its campaign to keep North Yorkshire libraries open. On January 27th, 700 people attended a meeting in Great Ayton to discuss the proposed closure of their local library. On January 29th, I attended a successful read-in in Doncaster: watch this video to get an idea of what’ll be happening this Saturday.

The following libraries are holding read-ins in North Yorkshire:

Bentham Library - 10.00-13.00
Colburn Library - 11.00 onwards
Easingwold Library - 9.30-11.30 - with authors Mike Pannett and G.P. Taylor
Great Ayton Library - 9.30-12.30
Pateley Bridge Library - Meet at 10.00 to march to the 'super-mobile'

The following libraries are holding read-ins in South Yorkshire (more information here):

Cantley Library - 10.00-13.00
Bawtry Library - 10.00-13.00 - with author Helena Pielichaty
Sprotbrough Library - 11.00-12.00 - with authors Richard Benson and Kate le Vann
Moorends Library - 11.00-13.00
Rossington Library - 11.00-12.00
Carcroft Library - 11.00-12.00
Sheffield Central Library - 11.00 onwards

There won’t be any read-ins in York because York City Council has vowed to safeguard all 14 of the city's libraries. Council leader, Andrew Waller, said quite rightly that “…there are alternatives to closing libraries which I am sure people would rather we pursued.”

On Saturday, I will be attending the Easingwold Library read-in. Easingwold Library has come to represent the main problems with the proposed cuts for North Yorkshire. Firstly, data soon to be made available by Voices for the Library shows that Easingwold Library has seen a consistent year-on-year increase in visits and is by no measure an unsuccessful library. Secondly, the people of Easingwold strongly oppose the closure: when a community fights against the councillors who represent them, something is dreadfully wrong. Next week, people will meet at a public consultation to discuss Easingwold Library’s fate. It’s important that people who care about North Yorkshire libraries attend.

Although Saturday will be a major turning point, it will not be the end of the campaigns to save libraries. For more information on what you can do to continue support of the UK’s public libraries, please visit the Voices for the Library website.

And if you haven’t seen them already, be inspired by Phil Bradley’s amazing retro-style save libraries posters. It’s this kind of brilliant creativity that libraries generate and nurture. 
My favourite. Ask yourself, what will you do?