Been a while huh? Since I last posted we’ve moved house, I’ve gone to World Fantasycon and neither of us have slept quite enough. However, I’m now back on my feet and so, we’re gearing up Open Mic Mondays again.
My first guest this time around is Ros Jackson, who was one of the parade of wonderful people I met at World Fantasycon. Ros was born and lives in Lincolnshire. She is the author of a YA fantasy novella, The Secret Eater, and runs the book blog Warpcore SF. She also runs Louth Eye, a local interest blog, which has given her an insight into local politics and as she puts it, ‘a compulsion to rant about the same as if she knows what she’s talking about’.
A lot of politics is about silencing people. It’s about censoring them, and ensuring that they don’t get the air time or the column inches that they need to mention uncomfortable truths. There are always uncomfortable truths, because some people will feel they can profit from people’s ignorance, even if it means society as a whole is much poorer and more divided.
In Lincolnshire we’re facing unprecedented cuts to the library service. Lincolnshire County Council plan to close all but 15 of the county’s 47 library buildings. They want to reduce the hours of the remaining libraries, take mobile library stops down from 400 to 126, sell off buildings, and cut 170 skilled library jobs. In all, these cuts are worth some £2 million, out of a front-line libraries budget of around £6 million.
At the beginning of the “consultation”, we were told that the £2 million reduction was already decided on by a council vote, and couldn’t be changed. The consultation document was carefully worded so that there were no questions about whether these cuts were acceptable. Instead the focus was on who was prepared to volunteer to take over the libraries that the county council was withdrawing funding from. Several consultation events took place: poorly publicized, in towns that weren’t due to lose their libraries, during the working day, and with advance pre-booking required. They were peculiar events, with typically over two-thirds of the time given over to a presentation of plans and statistics, and leaving only a few minutes at the end for people to question what was happening.
I’ve never experienced a more orchestrated attempt to damp down criticism and debate, in spite of the council’s obligation to run a consultation of some kind.
However, all of this pales into insignificance compared with the closure of so many libraries, because a good library includes the voices of thousands of authors. Whether it’s fiction, which teaches us empathy, or non-fiction which teaches us the lessons of history and everything else in between, these are voices that should not be stifled. Cutting funding from libraries is wilfully plunging us into ignorance, and robbing the next generation of the chance to learn and better themselves.
And it’s not even about the money. There are library studies that estimate the value of libraries at around £4 for every £1 spent, but these studies are only looking at the quantifiable data, which is to say the value of the books and materials people would otherwise have bought. But how do you put a value on literacy rates, or separate out the influence of a good school from the impact of a series of books borrowed from the library, on a person’s subsequent career? You can’t, easily. Libraries simply contribute to civilisation, and where’s the ROI on that?
I’ve spent many happy hours in my library, reading conspiracy theories about our lizard overlords, looking at pictures of kittens in kilts, learning how to eat ice-cream, and surfing porn on the internet. Oh, wait, no, I didn’t do any of that, because that’s not what libraries are for. But our reptilian masters would have us believe the internet and Kindles will replace books, although this ideology skirts round the fact that a lot of people use libraries to get online in the first place.
In Lincolnshire, just 83.4% of adults had ever used the internet in the last quarter of 2012, compared with 86.4% nationally (Report here). The number of people who don’t have access at home or work is somewhat higher, and the terminals at my local library are often very busy. So as a county it’s not very connected, and I know people who are still on dial-up connections because broadband hasn’t yet reached all of the villages, although that is changing.
What’s chilling is the fact that library internet users will have the most to complain about if they’re cut off, and they won’t be able to take to the net to do so. I see libraries as fundamental to our democracy because they offer free access to knowledge, and modern libraries also offer a way to engage in that democracy through emailing MPs, taking part in petitions, and commenting online. Yet everything about these closures and the way they have been managed smacks of an attempt to hush up criticism of one of the most wholesale attacks on our library service to date.
Thanks Ros for a serious, clear eyed look at an issue with far wider consequences than are being reported.
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