Let’s keep our windows on the world

reading by window 2

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

ombudsman3Shirley 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



Iconic bookstore of Santorini faces fight for survival


Atlantis Books – described in the Guardian as “a dream of a bookstore” – has been run by an international collective of artists, writers and activists since 2002, when it was first founded on the Greek island of Santorini.

As well as organising theatre and open-air cinema, and running the successful annual Caldera Festival since 2011, the bookstore has also set up programs such as the ‘book donkey’, which brings books to the local schools.

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However, the bookstore is now facing the threat of extinction, and the collective or artists who support Atlantis Books is now seeking help to secure its existence.

The owner of the picturesque cave house that has accommodated the Atlantis Bookstore since 2005 has announced plans to sell the property and, although no legal documents have yet gone around regarding the sale, the owner has claimed to have secured a 1 million euro deal for the building.

Atlantis 1

One of the original founders of Atlantis Books, Craig Walzer, has since struck a deal with the owner, which would see the building sold to the company, if they are able to come up with the same amount of money.

The race is now on to raise the funding for the purchase. Walzer has already said he is willing to invest his own personal savings to secure the store buyout and set up a writer’s and artist’s residence on Santorini, and the bookstore also has a first edition copy of The Great Gatsby which is expected to sell for around 10,000 euros.

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However, Walzer has also estimated that the total funds needed to buy the building and keep the business sustainable will be around US$1.5 million – which will go toward the cost of buying out the bookstore building and paying off the IRS tax that will be imposed on the campaign revenue.

The importance of securing the funding for the building cannot be overstated.

Not only has the building become a landmark for the area, it has also become an international symbol of creativity, art, and writing. It stands for both the local people and the world at large, and the story of the bookstore stands out as being one of ethical business, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit. One of the store’s interns once put it this way:

“I had always held the assumption that business was essentially a Darwinian struggle to best competition, while fending off would be predators, in order to vie for the business of customers. The bookshop however operates on an entirely different paradigm. Most notably for me is the complete lack of adversaries it inspires. The island locals are proud and grateful for the store, especially since they can find books in Greek. The tourists are delighted at the unexpected opportunity to refresh their travel reading, or take home a colorful coffee table book. The surrounding business are happy the bookshop does its part to attract people to the area, while not directly competing with them. The people working the store like myself are grateful for the opportunity to stay in such a beautiful location with inspiring company. And of course the owners are happy the store is performing all the above functions, as well as being profitable for them. In short the bookstore improves the lives of everyone it touches.”

Of course, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the first time that the Atlantis team has turned to crowdfunding. In 2011, the bookstore raised US$40,000 through a two-month Indiegogo campaign, which was organised in order for the owners to perform “overdue renovations to the shop interior, the transformation of our terrace into a flexible retain and performance space and the buying of fresh stock of unique books”.

That money has kept the doors open for the past four seasons. The new campaign of course seeks substantially more, but in the views of those who have been inspired by Atlantis Books; it is certainly a price worth paying.