There were two marches in London last Saturday: the million masks march (widely reported in the press) and a national protest against library closures (less so).
A quarter of all libraries have been lost since May 2010. Since then, we’ve seen this venerable and worthy profession hollowed out by austerity and its cheery Cameroonian cover story, the ‘Big Society’ – 15,500 volunteers have been recruited, according to Unite.v
Barnet, the Tory ‘easyCouncil’ famed for its love of outsourcing and bare bones public service, are well represented on the march, which ends with speeches in Trafalgar Square from striking librarians, affected children, and speeches of solidarity from gallery and museum staff, as well as former children’s laureate Michael Rosen.
We arrived quarter of an hour before we were due to start, at the front of the British Library. We were pointed to an anonymous car park ’round the back, where banners were being unfurled and a contingent of French public sector allies were seen emerging from the vicinity of the Eurostar terminal.
After some stirring speeches and a couple of dodgy ones, we made our way up between the British Library and the great train shed of St Pancras, before making the awful Euston Road temporarily less clogged with traffic on our walk to Bloomsbury.
Reaction from passers by was mainly positive, albeit dominated by confused tourists out enjoying tourist London. Heading past Tavistock Place, we did hear one woman in a car shout “Do something useful” – which we initially thought was “use google!”. Either way, pretty dispiriting, and difficult to respond to with speed (“actually from our perspective raising awareness of the crisis in libraries *is*… oh, you’ve driven off”).
Arriving at Trafalgar Square, there was some difficulty finding functioning microphones, but those who persevered heard some good speeches about how vital it is to protect these cultural jewels.
Movingly, we heard from one campaigner who grew up in Essex in the late 1970s. The National Front had made the local park a ‘no go area’, and so the local library was the place she took refuge from the racists.
It’s corny, but access to knowledge provide us with the tools to find better ideas, and better worlds. To the woman who shouted ‘use google’ – she may not have done, but I’ve heard the argument from others – the idea that the internet can replace trained professionals and safe, warm, welcoming spaces is ludicrous. As is the idea that a few shelves in the back of a gym or coffee shop is any kind of replacement for a local library.
Our march ending up in front of the national gallery was also telling, given the union’s long battle against the outsourcing bosses.