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Old Town Library, Swindon, England by Shirley Burnham

Category: Blog, Campaigning for Libraries

The following blog post was written for our Campaigning for Libraries blog that we ran as part of Libraries Week 2019. The blog features writing from various people who have been involved in library campaigns over the past few years. We hope the advice provided might help others who want to campaign for libraries.

Shirley was a key member of the campaign to keep Old Town Library in Swindon open.

Believe it or not, there was a time when a single branch library under threat was considered newsworthy.  That was the case with mine, the Old Town Library in Swindon. Its potential loss was deplored in 2008 by the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, and again by Joan Bakewell well before she became a Dame.  Important to us, because it continued for years, was the advocacy from the author, Alan Gibbons. The impact of that, together with frequent articles in the local Swindon Advertiser cannot be overestimated.  Others, active on the Internet, were also keen to help.  Their number was small – no more than half a dozen in those very early days — being (in addition to Alan Gibbons), The Bookseller’s Benedicte Page, Laura Swaffield of  CILIP Outlook, Tim Coates, Christopher Hawtree of Hove and the late Desmond Clarke.

What of value can be learnt from my/our early experiences that might be useful to advocates today?

  • First, draw your red lines.  Be consistent. In our case, with Swindon’s Old Town Library, we were from Day 1 completely against any suggestion of the substitution of staff by volunteers
  • Do not try to save your library alone.  Gather like-minded individuals in your community; write to the newspapers, to councillors and others regularly; have demos!
  • Delegate when possible; work with others;  don’t drive yourself to a nervous breakdown
  • Cultivate ties with your local newspaper(s) and maintain a good relationship with their reporters
  • Cultivate people of influence; anyone you can think of whom you might recruit: including authors, local luminaries, business people, willing celebs and sympathetic MPs
  • Use social media to its best effect
  • Attend and ask questions at council meetings when Libraries are on the agenda;  go ‘en masse’ if possible
  • Make sure that every campaigner is singing from the same song sheet.  Keep them well-informed and happy.
  • Hold the DCMS and its Ministers to account

We had oodles of hope and enthusiasm for our cause a decade ago, but happily  were not in the same position as advocates today who look out over the ruins of the professional service and austerity cuts & gasp “How could this have happened?”   “Who thought that closing and de-staffing libraries, to achieve a generation in illiteracy and idleness, was a good idea?”

“Is it, then, worth carrying on?”

To this last question I would still say “Yes”.  In Swindon the estimable Sarah Church took over from me to organise a borough-wide campaign which achieved much.  Also, look at the magnificent campaigns for public libraries and staff in Essex and elsewhere! Might politicians with local or national elections on the horizon be more approachable than usual?  Old Town Library, did survive as part of Swindon’s statutory service for a good few years, thanks to many campaigners’ and ordinary library users’ efforts.