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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Opinion |
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Short Sighted and in Bad Faith

In 2016 the Guardian published a piece with the headline “Libraries facing ‘greatest crisis’ in their history” — the details are frightening for those that care about libraries and public institutions in general. More than 350 libraries across Britain have closed between 2010 and 2016, contributing to 8,000 job losses. The libraries that have survived have felt increasing pressure to defend their very existence, instrumenting measures to fit within tighter council budgets such as cutting permanent staff and replacing them with volunteers, reducing opening hours, reducing collections, and generally cutting services. However, these actions ultimately serve only to facilitate more cuts, as they undermine the library’s ability to provide effective and robust services, thus, relegating their importance to the community that uses them. It is a vicious circle: cuts are made, so libraries react accordingly; patronage and community support dwindles, justifying further cuts.

With this in mind, it should give us pause when reflecting on news out of Auckland that the council are reducing staff across their libraries in an effort to save $1.8 million, giving ratepayers “better value for money.” That is the clearest statement of intent in the council’s press release and reveals their main priorities. The other intent of the cuts is framed in the maddeningly ambiguous language of board rooms. We are meant to believe that these cuts are a “future proofing” measure and ignore the irony that it means losing years of actual librarian experience to do so. Outside of the job losses and the savings to ratepayers, “future proofing” apparently means making vague generalisations about advancing library digital and online services, which sounds nice, but in the absence of specifics feels hollow in light of the human cost.

Of course libraries need to adapt to their time and place. In 2017 libraries have to compete with a digital world in which most information, art, and entertainment can be accessed online. But libraries have survived technology shifts before, maintaining their relevancy and importance throughout a history that stretches back to a time where people were itching their musings into stone — in other words, libraries are pretty resilient. Librarians are the best people to lead this change. Sacrificing their years of experience and creating an environment in which the survivors are fearful for their job security is counter productive. The council may want to frame these cuts as an attempt to ready libraries for the future, but little to nothing will be achieved if their plans are governed by a slavish dedication to the bottom line and making their ratepayers happy.

This reality, that libraries exist at the whim of whoever is in control of public spending, means that we must continually argue for their existence. The public library does this itself through its engagements with the community it serves, but there are political and philosophical arguments that must be made in its support.

The public library is one of the last commons, a site on which people can organise, collaborate, aid, and create. Spaces like this are latent with political potential but easily disregarded by individualistic politics that run counter to the more egalitarian space the library occupies. Spend any time within a public library, particularly one as large and as central as Wellington’s City Library, and you are likely to encounter an impressive diversity of patrons: the economically disadvantaged using the library as a safe and warm place, the backpackers from around the world skyping their friends and family back home, the students head down in books, and the local families loaning their weekly dose of fiction. One can begin to see the library as an antidote to online isolation and the politics that often fester in such spaces where individuals remain closed off to opposing points of view. Anyone can be accepted within the public library, as use of its space and service is predominately free. This should be fought for, not just for its rarity in a commodified society but for its ability to resist the social stratification such a society engenders.

There is a further role the library occupies politically, one that may be less material, but is no less important. For many of us our first experience of libraries was as children. Whether we were making our regular trip on the weekend to pick up an armful of fiction, or whether it was where we went after school waiting for our parents to finish work, the time we spent in the library — the books, magazines, music, and movies we inevitably digested — will have had an indelible but unconscious affect on the way we think and operate within society. I for one have no recollection of the books I read through my local library as a kid, yet I can draw a fairly accurate diagram of its internal architecture and, as I now have a degree in English literature, I’d say those forgettable books still managed to leave a mark. What I am pushing at here is the library as a space of imagination, or “wonder” as the Wellington City Library Charter puts it. The future is a space that is always contestable, and the future that is on our horizon will ask particularly hard and existential questions that will require radically new and different thinking if we are to answer them appropriately. We cannot cut off spaces as important as the public library. Their ability to provide a glimpse of a more utopian and egalitarian community, as well as fostering imaginative and critical thinking, are central needs as we approach a precarious, shared future.

We can be thankful that we are not facing a crisis comparable in size to the United Kingdom. But death by a hundred little cuts can be easy to ignore and harder to fight. If we passively accept these cuts and fail to make a noise for our libraries, then by the next Budget more can be justified. This is not scaremongering but rather a pragmatic response to a decision that is both short sighted and in bad faith.

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