Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday rant.....

I used to work in the Manuscripts department at the British Library years ago. There were some fine pieces on show such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. And collecting these wonderful priceless manuscripts from the cabinets and vaults (the vaults were adjusted temperature wise to cold to protect the most precious manuscripts... and it was a great place to cool off esp. as when I worked there during summer it was hot and humid) as requested by readers.

I remember Germaine Greer would turn up all bright eyed and bushy tailed and be the first through the door handing her request through the hatch of the department. The manuscipts I enjoyed perusing were the medieval anatomical ones. Crude drawings of the human bodies using a Galenic interpretation of illness and disease. Beautifully artistically inscribed and embossed.

So it kinda saddened me reading this piece today. The British Library are being asked to make cuts of around 5% to 7% by the government.

"The prognosis was chilling. Substantial cuts would restrict access to our collections as reading rooms reduced their opening hours and imposed charges for services that are currently free to users".

Having worked in the BL and also having contact as part of previous employment, I know what a vast resource they are. They don't charge any entrance fee (though you do have to prove your academic interest and research). Instead if they have to start charging it won't be about merit it will be about whether you have the cash.

Looking at the wider picture there has been systematic attacks on libraries during the past number of years. Councils looking for easy targets to cut usually go for libraries or simply run it down so it doesn't look inviting and interesting to the public. Last year 107 libraries faced closure though government minister David Lammy argued that it was only a fraction of the 3,500 libraries in the country! But what happens if this becomes the norm for the next couple of years, libraries will dwindle in numbers.

Having worked in academic libraries I only know too well that it was the first port of call for cuts. Reduced budget meant less books, videos/CDs, increased charges, cuts in staff (evenings and weekends) and therefore complaints from staff and students about inadequate resources. And as a Unison activist we were constantly fighting a rear guard action against these cuts.

There have been protests from ordinary people against cuts in library services. The other problem is that money seems to being poured into IT and not books. This should not be seen as a competition for cash but that the two compliment each other. I have seen the consequences of cuts in libraries and when I visit my local libraries the architecture, interiors and buildings are in bad shape and sometimes dilapidated. Drab paint work, books in terrible condition, CDs/videos falling to bits and too few staff. This does invite or encourage people to use their local libraries.

North Yorkshire county council conducted a survey in 2002 to ask people what they thought of the library facilities and results were negative. The result was not shutting them down the council poured £6million to refurbish and revamp. Library usage has increased between 30% to 150%. Also there has been a 6% increased of children using the library.

When I was a kid I visited my local library and was utterly fascinated by books (actually back then I wanted to be a librarian..). It was a place where I could escape to and be surrounded by words and stories. A place where I could conjure up ideas and use it to express my own imagination and creativity.

And it is not just Britain where libraries are closing but Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal and, in Europe, Cyprus, Serbia, Georgia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Libraries have already closed in Kuwait, Turkey, Italy, Germany and Belgium.

The politics of neo-liberalism isn't concerned with learning and reading. It is about profit. And the way libraries function isn't about making money but altruism and collectivity: things certainly not in the lexicon of neo-liberalism.

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