On Tuesday last week members of We ♥ Libraries attended Speak Up for Libraries – a national lobby held at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster to highlight the scale of library cuts around the country and to call on MPs to help mitigate them.
It was a great event featuring organisations as diverse as the Women’s Institute and public sector union Unison as well as authors, literacy advocates and library campaign groups. Authors Kate Mosse, Alan Gibbons and Philip Ardagh gave speeches outlining the value of libraries for readers and writers of all ages as well as the communities in which they live.
Campaigners spoke of the battles they have fought locally and what libraries have meant to the people in their neighbourhoods. The day was a welcome chance to get together, swap stories and share encouragement – as well as producing a good deal of positive national media coverage for libraries and for the vital role they play in our lives.
A highlight of the day for us was inadvertently bumping into the handiwork of the folks from Knit the City – creators of superb crafty, woolly street art – on the way to Central Hall. On a day designed to highlight the importance of keeping art, culture and ideas at the centre of every community in the form of public libraries, As you’ll see from our photo gallery it was quite a hit with the tourists, too.
The strength of the day was not in its novelty, but rather in the chance to hear all the arguments and campaigning techniques developed over months and years by library campaigners geting an airing on the national stage, presented by people with a high enough profile to be listened to, and consequently widely debated by the media on the day and subsequently.
For example, Kate Mosse highlighted the importance of libraries as community spaces and asked how the next generation of aspiring writers will get inspiration and develop the will to succeed if not by seeing their work on library shelves.
Children’s author Philip Ardagh spoke of the importance of libraries in his own childhood and development as a writer, while National Federation of Women’s Institutes chair Ruth Bond reminded us how her organisation has championed the public library service for the whole of its 96-year existence.
Bookstart Bear's elder sibling was also present...
Dave Prentis, General Secretary of library workers’ union Unison, affirmed how important they can be for helping to create a fairer society, a point that was later developed very strongly by the event’s master of ceremonies Alan Gibbons. John Dolan, representing librarians’ professional body CILIP, reminded the audience how important libraries can be for children in households with few books and no reliable internet access.
After hearing these important points it was time for a break from the speakers and some musical entertainment – with an acoustic appearance from William Doyle (of Doyle and the Fourfathers) presenting his tuneful protest song “Welcome to Austerity” (you can listen here). He was followed by Dan Jarvis MP, the shadow libraries minister and the only politician of any party to make an appearance at the event – despite his opposite number Ed Vaizey giving evidence to the Parliamentary Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that very morning.
Then it was the turn of the campaigners with Shropshire’s Mar Dixon, Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News, Ian Clark from Voices for the Library and Elizabeth Ash from Croydon all explaining what libraries have meant to them, their communities and colleagues, what motivated them to join the battle against cuts, and what they had experienced as a result.
The speeches were wound up by Andrew Coburn and Laura Swaffield of The Library Campaign, library advocates with more than 20 years’ experience who expressed the wry hope that they might be able to retire one day, instead of fighting a perpetual rearguard action against cuts. Musician One Man and his Beard finished up with a final song and then it was time for author and campaigner Alan Gibbons to take to the stage.
This was such a wonderful, affirming rabble-rouser of a speech that we can only really do it justice by linking to this video excerpt:
With the rally over, it was time to lobby our MP. More than 100 campaigners headed over to the House of Commons to do the same – and, on the way, we saw another highlight of the day, ladies from romance publisher Mills & Boon marching on Parliament with bright-pink placards. We had attempted to arrange an appointment with Hitchin and Harpenden MP Peter Lilley but had been unable to do so. We were also unable to see him on the day, and have rather disappointingly received no response since to the open letter sent to him and his colleagues Oliver Heald MP and Stephen McPartland MP. However we will continue to try to positively engage all three of our local MPs on the subject of libraries, and to advocate for the value of our local library services.
The lobby was a great experience, and a lot less daunting given that the queue into the House of Commons through the airport-style security centre, and the Central Lobby itself, were full of friendly fellow-campaigners all happy to have a chat and share their own experiences. It’s a wonderful thing to visit Parliament, which is a stunning building in its own right, and to know that you can ask to see your MP at any time on any subject – even if they are not available to see you, they receive the green card you are asked to fill out as a record of your visit and so understand that you cared enough to make the journey to London and to get into the building to see them. That’s why the lobby was worth doing even for those of us who couldn’t interest our MP in a meeting in advance.
Advocating for public libraries, and getting the message out about why piecemeal cuts that may not seem disastrous in themselves are part of a bigger and very dangerous picture, can often prove to be a thankless task which takes a lot out of the people doing it. That’s one reason why events like Speak Up for Libraries are essential – they allow campaigners to recharge their batteries, to appreciate that they are not fighting a lone battle and to add their voices to a much wider national movement. We felt that attending the rally was incredibly worthwhile, allowing us to hear speeches from lots of inspirational library advocates, to meet other campaigners and to help get the message out to a national audience. Will we be along to the next national event? You bet!