As a hundred communities campaign together to save Britain’s libraries, the 160 year old Ventnor library on the Isle of Wight has shown peaceful protest pays.

Ventnor Lib

Ventnor library on the Isle of Wight had a mass protest recently that emptied the much larger central library in Newport of its books.   Up to thirty books per customer were stripped from the shelves and returned to local libraries threatened by Coalition cuts.   I have spoken to various local librarians about this and can attest to the strength of local feeling and that the library closures, like the forest sell-off, is starting to prove to be a headache to the Coalition.

I was there to report on the mass-borrowing event and spotted Rob Jones, the head of Isle of Wight Libraries stood on the steps talking to campaigners outside the library doors. He was surrounded by canvas bags jam-packed with books and library supporters urging passersby to “borrow as many books as you can.”  The protest was working and inside Newport library the shelves were practically empty. The place was buzzing, the press got their pictures and Ventnorians were one step closer to stopping the Council in its tracks.

Newport empty shelves

Last Saturday, just three weeks before the local council will make its decision whether their library will shut down, Venorians were at it again.  This time gathered together as part of the national day of action to “Save Britain’s Libraries” by organising the event they called Ventnor Rocks.   As the most civilised of protests got underway in Ventnor, across the country, similar stories were unfolding.  In Somerset, 11 out of 34 libraries have been earmarked for closure.   Half the libraries are threatened with closure in Oxfordshire and it’s a similar story in Leeds, where even the city’s Central Library is danger of being culled.  Sarah Bradley, who is coordinating the campaign to save Leeds Central Library, said. “The plans to close libraries across the country are an exclusionary measure.   Libraries give people the chance to try out different authors and read different types of literature that they might not usually, which is so important to society.”  Simon Bertram, a former library worker, himself made redundant last year, sympathises. “It means a lot to people. There are not many places to go to that are free.  Many people are lonely, especially the elderly and they come to us for someone to talk to.  You get to know the regulars, they get to know you and it gives them a bit of interaction, maybe the only contact they get.”banner vent lib

As I listened at Ventnor library to one speaker after other telling their stories how libraries had touched them or their family’s lives, the collective sense of loss was palpable.    The poetry readings, heart-felt speeches, and music gave the place a melancholy aurora, but somehow, the pressure that had built after weeks and months of waiting for the council’s verdict, had emboldened the local community and kept Ventnor’s library doors open .  This peaceful protest by local people, wielding nothing but poetry and prose, has turned around the local councils plans and won Ventnor library a reprieve.   Could library closures, I wonder, be the next sign that the Coalition’s resolve to cut public services is weakening?

An officer at the Isle of Wight Council, who preferred not to be named, told me. “The granting of the partial reprieve from closure is good news for Isle of Wight libraries. Councillors discussed the matter on Tuesday night and decided that Ventnor library will be open to the public for 21 hours per week (maybe that will work out at 2 full days and 2 half days).  This will give the local community time to organise volunteer support to open more normally.” The Councils formal decision will not be made until March 1st, but a spokesman for the Isle of Wight Council confirmed. “Under the new proposals, Sandown, Ventnor, Freshwater and Cowes libraries, that were modelled to close after a year, will now be managed by the council for the equivalent of three days a week, and it is the council's intention to see these libraries stay open...”  With echoes’ of David Cameron’s flagship “Big Society” policy,  the spokesman said that libraries would  be “evolving into closer local library partnerships with their communities, this will enable library staff to train volunteers to further expand opening hours if there is local demand.”

The Ventnorians peaceful protest really does seem to have paid off.  The mass borrowing stunt in January and the Ventnor Rocks event on Saturday has rattled the conservative run Isle of Wight Council into making a U-turn, and put the coalition government on notice that local people are not always going to take cuts to their public services lying down.  George Brown, the forthright Council cabinet member responsible for Isle of Wight libraries said. "We have listened to views expressed during consultation and come up with proposals that reflect the need to preserve local library services, but in a way that is in balance with our financial constraints.”  Brown added. "While we do have to reduce expenditure on our library service as part of the overall need to save £25 million in the coming two years, we intend to do all we reasonably can to protect libraries in all areas currently served and furthermore to help establish new provision in areas where there currently is none."   Quite a turnaround, given the Isle of Wight’s Council’s original plan to close 9 out of 11 libraries altogether and within a year.  Along with hundreds of other libraries threatened with closure across the country: 39 in Birmingham, a 25% cut in library service hours in Cornwall and the 18 libraries to go in Gloucestershire, not all Isle of Wight libraries will be saved.  Bembridge on the South East Coast is for the chop, as are the village libraries of Niton and Brighstone.  East Cowes, across the water from Southampton, will close, as will the seaside town library in Shanklin.   For these 5 Isle of Wight public libraries and 487 others across Britain, the fight against government cuts very much goes on.

library books
The link with community that libraries make and the importance of books being freely available to the public goes to the very heart of democracy.   J.F. Kennedy wrote in the 1960s. “If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men and women reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all.”  For centuries libraries have performed this democratic function, enlightening the community the library serves by providing free access to information, access that really ought to be a right to which no one should be excluded.

Lauren Smith, national spokeswoman for Voices for the Library has said, "Once a library is shut it will never reopen. When councils realise what they have done it will be too late."  The harsh reality is that that hundreds of libraries, like Ventnor’s, are facing closure all over the country and once they’re shut down their unique ability to connect people will be difficult to restore.

Government cuts show no signs of abating, swimming pools, community centres, even public toilets are all under threat of closure.  Walking away from Ventnor library on Saturday afternoon, just three days before the council threw it a lifeline, you couldn’t help feeling how wrong it would be if the doors to Ventnor library, and its 160 year history, would be gone forever.   As I left on Saturday afternoon I turned to Rob Jones, the head of Isle of Wight Libraries, and thanked him for all he had done.  Rob had come in especially to lend his support to staff and had helped out on this extraordinarily busy day.   He said to me, with what looked like to me a tear in his eye, “It’s not us that have done this, it’s what the people want it, but it is nice to know that so many people have come in today to show us we are appreciated.”

The fact is, that the long running campaign that saved Ventnor library and others all over Britain, would not have happened without the Isle of Wight Campaign Group, or the other 100 protest groups fighting to save Britain’s libraries. The Save Britain’s Libraries campaign, like the one that took place in Ventnor library on Saturday, is showing us that peaceful protest really can pay.

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