Do library occupations help campaigners, or the government?

Ok, straight off the bat I should say that I am by and large a supporter of both the Occupy movement and UK Uncut.  My politics, as if you didn’t already know, are to the left and broadly influenced by people such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.  I’ve got a relatively long history in blogging lefty political viewpoints and I am vehemently opposed to the current government’s policy of slashing the state under the guise of a supposed need for austerity (note, guise).

However, as a library campaigner and a qualified, professional librarian, I am more than a little concerned about the way these particular groups have handled the question of library closures.  So concerned, that I am prepared to write a blog post criticising a group of people I am broadly in agreement with (‘broadly’ is probably understating it) and, furthermore, to do so from the comfort of my own home whilst they are out there actually fighting the cuts.  Although I am uncomfortable with the situation I am about to put myself in, I feel that it needs to be said.

Whilst I have been fairly supportive of the occupation of libraries that have been closed, this support has been tinged with a sense of horror and concern.  Supportive because quite often these libraries are being closed against the wishes of the local population.  Often they have not been consulted and where they have, the options have been limited (invariably “run it yourself or we are closing it down” or “you find the money to run it, or we are closing it down” – localism in action…).  In this position, it would be hard to criticise anyone for occupying the library and delivering the service in defiance of the anti-democratic decision-making process at the heart of their local authority. But…

Those that are occupying these libraries are very often not librarians, or information professionals.  They are, in actual fact, untrained volunteers.  And herein lies the problem. With a backdrop of local authorities forcing local residents to run their local library service at their own cost (in effect paying twice as they have paid for the service through their taxes and now paying to maintain it), this is very dangerous.  Indeed, it rather plays all too conveniently into the hands of this government and its Big Society agenda.

Whilst those occupying libraries such as Friern Barnet are doing so out of protest and aiming to highlight the destruction of our library service, what is actually happening is that they are reinforcing the perception of the ruling elites, ie that anyone can run a library so let’s encourage local volunteers to do so.  Certainly, if those occupying the library have actually managed to increase visits to the library, as they claim, then this does not weaken the hand of the library cuts brigade, it strengthens it.  Ultimately, what is likely to be the end result of claims in the national media that the occupiers “have doubled the number of visitors“? Answer: more community libraries and more local people being blackmailed into providing a service they should expect from their local council.  This is an unsustainable model.  A model that even those running existing community library services have urged caution against.

It is highly damaging to see reporting in the national press that suggests that the protesters are equivalent to librarians:

Eight-strong group become ‘community librarians’ with locals’ support after law change forces them out of residential property.

The illegal tenants-cum-librarians attracted international media coverage…

…the squatters, who have acted as librarians…

The occupiers are not librarians, nor should they be seen as such.  Being described in this way does great damage not only to the profession (librarians are easily replaced with volunteers), but to local communities who will be expected to provide a service that their local authority will claim is equivalent to their existing, professionally delivered service.

Of course, this could be down to media reporting of the occupation.  I notice, for example, that the BBC more accurately describe the service as a “book-lending service in a library” (which is what it is, it isn’t a library).  But that does not detract from the fact that the strategy being deployed by the occupiers isn’t actually slowing the assault by both national and local government, but accelerating it.  When your protest is actually making the government’s case for them, then there is a very real, very serious problem.

Now, this post may be dismissed by those involved as someone seeking to undermine their protest for the benefit of the local council.  I can only assure them that my anti-austerity, left-wing credentials are clear and irrefutable (as anyone who knows me, or my blogging history, will testify).  My support for Occupy remains strong. I believe that their cause is just and essential.  It’s just, in this case, I fear that they are empowering the government’s agenda, rather than strengthening the case of library campaigners. Of course, I have been known to be wrong…I hope, in this case, I am.