Some people see library cuts as a “Middle Class Problem”, important only to academics and librarians. Do we even need libraries, when we can get everything on-line, and no one uses them anyway?
But, can we really get everything on-line? If a book was published before the coming of the e-book, it’s probably unavailable on-line. None of the City Archive material or Photographic Archive or Music Library is available on-line. And although current textbooks are available as e-books, they often cost £30 upwards to buy.
In two hours per week, over a few Saturdays in early 2015, we collected upward of 2,000 signatures from people coming to use the Library of Birmingham. Another 4,500 were collected on line. A couple of years ago, a campaign to save the West Heath Community Library got comparable levels of support. It seems that people do use libraries, after all. Since the cuts took effect, long queues of Library users outside the LoB every morning waiting it to open and the ‘Occupy’ students who stay on after closing have been a further testimony to that.
Our petition outside the LoB was signed by all kinds of people. Young people, school and college students, using the Library as a place to work on assignments, individually or in groups. Families with young children, encouraging their children to read and enjoy books. People of all ages, borrowing and returning books, or using the Library as a place to read. People accessing the Archives to study their family history. People from near and far, whether Aston, Sparkhill, Harborne, Dudley, Leamington, Yorkshire, Australia or Brazil.
Before assuming libraries are a “Middle Class Problem”, look at the impact of library cuts on library users.
Birmingham is a young city; children and young people are 25% of our population. We want them to become included in society, to achieve and make a contribution. But many live in poverty; up to 80% of them in some areas. They often lack a quiet place to study. They need access to the necessary books and resources, including subjects such as economics, law, art, history, science and technology etc. They need the libraries at evenings and weekends, and they need safe and easy access to their local libraries. Cutting hours, in the LoB and in the community libraries, discriminates against the young. As does cutting children’s events and activities.
Cutting evening and weekend opening also impacts on people who are studying while in employment, again mainly the young, but also people who are changing careers. They may be attending degree or vocational qualifications courses, or be in occupational placements during the day from 9-5. Or full-time students may have to take paid work on Saturdays to support their living costs. Lack of evening opening also impacts those who are carers during the daytime. Women are especially likely to be carers within the family, or to be full time carers of children. They will be disproportionately denied access at times when other family members are available to take over caring responsibilities.
People with disabilities and frequent daytime medical and therapy appointments will have reduced access. Shift workers will be similarly disadvantaged. People in full time employment who don’t work in the city centre will find it hard to access the LoB. Some individuals – e.g. young women- may be unable to attend unless accompanied, for cultural reasons. If the accompaniers are in employment, this group’s access to LoB will be very limited. This is potentially discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and gender.
Library cuts also mean that the Library at Home list will be closed to new applicants. People who need the Library at Home service are people who find it hard to get out of their homes without help, due to disability, illness, mobility problems or frailty. The service is also available to carers who are unable to visit their local library due to their individual circumstances. The continued closure of this list discriminates against those who have protected characteristics of age and disability.
In Birmingham, 18% of people lack access to the Internet. Often these are older people, but there is a mix of other factors like low income, disability, learning difficulties, ethnic origin, location (including housing), culture and language. FairBrum identified a clear link between digital exclusion and social exclusion. And just providing the internet access is not enough. Some library users need librarians to show them how to use the Internet to find information. Cutting library hours, and the availability of staff to help, discriminates against people who need to use libraries to access the Internet. These library users are from disadvantaged groups.
Library cuts mean that no new books can be bought. This will have a disproportionate impact on members of minority groups, with regard to ethnicity, sexuality or gender (BAME, LGBTQI+), as their literature needs are already insufficiently met by LoB.Library cuts are not a middle class problem. They infringe the rights of anyone who wants to learn, and participate in our community and its cultural life. And library users from disadvantaged groups get more than their fair share of the impact.
“Birmingham, stand up! Fight back against these cuts, that are against knowledge, and against learning, and against our city!” – Carl Chinn, speaking at the #Rally4LoB on 7th February 2015, can be seen on YouTube.