It is 2006 when I enter a small branch library on Victoria Road, Swindon. On first sight it is stuffed with books and there’s a public computer – hooray! One of the two library assistants notices me and we get chatting. Thus begins my integration into the Old Town – people to meet, books to choose and discuss, reliable information readily to hand and all the advice I need from our librarians. Within days I am greeted by name. And so the uneasiness of settling into a new location is dispelled.
In those halcyon days small branch libraries up and down the country served millions of people, answering millions of queries and providing a focal point for each community. Free of charge, it has been a special, accessible and safe space to be enjoyed not only by newcomers, but everyone else. What’s not to like?
Swindon opened its first public library in August 1943, in the middle of World War II. The public library was at that time and until recently recognised by politicians and public servants as an institution essential to the public good. Townsfolk enjoyed a central library and 14 further public libraries, plus a mobile service. It is, however, the sad reality today that, in spite of the town’s expansion and so many new people moving in, the mobile service is defunct and all but four of its public libraries have been divested out of the statutory service, their future sustainability uncertain.
As long ago as 2007 we learned that our own much-appreciated facility was threatened with closure. Margaret, over eighty years of age, said she’d chain herself to the railings in that event, while other users of all ages and backgrounds were similarly distraught. Roisin had brought her children, then her grandchildren to this little library. Peter had made friends, he says, and it gives him something to look forward to, keeping his brain active. The friendliness and buzz of our branch library, so professionally run had invigorated young and old alike, linking us to the community around us.
Such a threat to it, then, must surely be challenged. Who would petition the council? How could the library’s closure or the loss of its staff be tolerated?
To gather signatures on any physical petition is a salutary experience, uniting disparate people around a local issue perhaps more than any e-petition can. As we cheerfully roamed the local streets, we became aware that few people knew the library was threatened. It had had such a low profile that a few did not even know it existed. Our presence on street corners in the bitter cold, we hoped, would put an end to that. Note the young mother who signed with alacrity. I recall her particularly because she needed to take her autistic son to a smaller space than the central library. He’d not be able to cope with that, she said. The elderly were worried, too, being less mobile. They were accustomed to visiting the library often (on foot) to load themselves up with enough books or audio-books to read at home.
Appeals to Culture ministers and Secretaries of State, most recently in 2015, met with assurances that our concerns were legitimate and would be investigated. They have actually done absolutely nothing!
On the upside, the support of The Library Campaign, a national charity, has been crucial to our morale and small successes, as we fought long and hard to retain what we felt was ours by right. As a result our branch library and its paid staff were saved for ten years or so. Result!
The threat, however, expanded in 2016 to become borough wide, so there was a massive reorganisation of folk across the Town. Users and campaigners united as Save Swindon’s Libraries. As a result, four excellent libraries continue to serve the town within the statutory service, but the remainder, though open, do not enjoy their former status. Although it could have been far worse, the loss of staff expertise and the general hollowing out of what is left leaves a woeful legacy for future generations.
Consider, where does the Universal Credit claimant who can’t afford a computer go when he’s told to claim online? What about the teenager who needs somewhere safe to go after school to read or study, when the gates to the library are closed to him? What of the gentleman who has had two strokes; his isolation only eased by trips to the library. Councils like ours need to think how much they will have to spend picking up the pieces when all these people lose all these lifelines. Health, literacy, education, social services, even crime prevention are underpinned by the public library. Yet at least seven hundred have closed since 2010 and many others have been robbed of staff and have an increasingly precarious existence.
A public library is the local authority’s window on the world. Must it be curtains for them, due to the decisions of philistines and the withholding of investment, or can the public unite again to demand a comprehensive service? I’ll carry on asking for this and I hope you will, too.
About the author of this article
Shirley Burnham is a library campaigner who established the Friends of Old Town Library group in 2008 that became the Save Old Town Library Campaign in 2009. Latterly she has supported Save Swindon’s Libraries which was organised by Sarah Church to protect threatened libraries across the borough of Swindon. Shirley also campaigns for accessible, professionally-run public libraries in other parts of the country. You can follow her on Twitter @ShirleyBurnham