Better late than never they say; but an unexpected stay in hospital means that this account of the Library Campaign AGM on 9 May comes nearly three weeks after the event. So much for the immediacy of the blogging medium.
Though a founder member of the twenty-five year old organisation, I haven't been to a Library Campaign meeting for too many years, but, as councils try to close libraries in the Wirral and Swindon, to name the most frequently reported cases, and as we prepare , whatever party wins power in a putative general election, for public expenditure cuts, it seemed time to get active again.
Two speakers spoke: one understood and shared the views of the campaigners in the room, one didn't. Guess which was which. I give them below in the order they spoke
Lyn Brown, an MP and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries Literacy and Information Management read her speech, and a copy is on the Library Campaign website, so I shall not summarise her remarks. In a gesture that probably sums up what is wrong with the political establishment and its cult of secrecy, she forbade anyone to repeat or record some remarks she made during questions about the Wirral. Lyn only referred to books three times. Historiographically selective nods to the radical origins of public libraries, and a clichéd profession of a love of books did not win over the audience. She inhabits the world of the bureaucrats: the APPG, the DCMS, the MLA; the construction of the agenda of her inquiry into the governance and leadership of public libraries leaves out the fundamental issue of the pitiful levels of public funding made available to the service.
Rachel Cooke of the Observer has been writing about public library affairs since 2006, and has raised their future with each of the ever-changing ministers David Lammy, with Margaret Hodge, who accused her of 'longing for the days of Mansion polish', Barbara Follett who, we learned the previous day, had claimed £24,000 for security guards, and Andrew Burnham, who, she said, talks even more twaddle than his predecessors. It was Burnham who expressed his vision for public libraries in the baffling phrase 'Facebook -3D'
She was full of passionate scorn for the failures of the MLA and DCMS. Her visits to public libraries around the country convinced her that things are bad. The reality of the much-vaunted high-profile new building projects was shown by the £12 million Ideas Store in Tower Hamlets she visited, which was 'a dump'. On the other hand she praised Hillingdon, whose libraries she said were like bookshops 'in a good way'.
One of the strengths of the public library, she felt, was the way it showed you new possibilities: 'you don't know what you want until you're in there'. Rachel was convincing and inspiring, everything that the other speaker was not. I disagree slightly with her emphasis on the book to the exclusion of other material. It seems to me that public libraries should be properly funded to provide access to civilisation and knowledge in all its forms, the documents people want and need in any format, from the clay tablet and papyrus to the web and on to newer formats that we haven't yet imagined. But her passionate defence of the idea of the public library ought to inspire everyone who uses or works in one.
At the AGM itself, the Campaign agreed to support the Campaign for the Book's conference on 27th June.
See also Laura Swaffield's account on the CILIP Library & Information Upadte blog