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The Fight for Britain’s Libraries

During the pandemic, library workers have been deemed 'essential' and many forced to continue work – but government cuts have led to 1,000 closures in a decade, the real measure of how these services are valued.

On 20 March 2020 at about 4:30pm, Unison members working in Lambeth libraries invoked Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and walked out. They complained about having no PPE, and no immediate access to hand-washing facilities.

Library workers up and down the country have told me similar horror stories – of having to supply their own PPE, and of employers failing to implement safe working practices or carry out proper risk assessments.

Many of the staff who contacted me were clinically vulnerable, or had family members who fell into this category, and were frightened that they would take the virus home. Some of those who contacted me also told me about colleagues who had contracted the virus, but whose libraries were still open.

Around this time in the UK and the US, #closethelibraries and #protectlibraryworkers started trending on Twitter.

‘The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness,’ wrote Callan Bignoli, a US library worker and campaigner.

On 23 March, the majority of public libraries closed. The last twelve months have been a frustrating and stressful rollercoaster ride for many library workers, as some branches have stayed open and others have closed.

Many of us have been working from home for large chunks of this period, doing Test and Trace work, offering online storytime sessions for children, delivering books to vulnerable and housebound residents, and performing a myriad of other tasks to support communities.

And although there have been some articles written about the great work done by libraries during the pandemic, it’s actually library workers who have done the work – a subtle yet crucial distinction. Working from home has caused its own divisions, with lower-grade staff more likely to be working on the frontline than their higher-grade managers.

During this period, the government deemed libraries an essential service, making library staff key workers. Many library workers and campaigners saw this as a cynical political move in order to force them back to work, and were dismayed and angered that this status had been bestowed during a deadly virus rather than during the last decade or so, when hundreds of libraries were closed or offloaded to volunteers, and thousands of jobs were cut.

In recent lockdowns, many councils have encouraged local people to leave their homes and travel to the library for ‘click and collect’ and ‘essential’ PC use, even while the national government was advising them to stay at home. This mixed and confusing messaging was opposed by Unison, whose position was that all libraries should close.

‘We all love our libraries,’ a Unison press release from November reads, ‘but it is paramount that libraries play their part in reducing the risk of transmitting the virus. And ‘closed’ must mean putting a temporary stop to all click and collect services and access to IT provision too. We need to save lives and protect our local communities and the NHS. It is simply not sensible to encourage unnecessary travel.’

As Eamon Tewell, another US library worker and campaigner put it, ‘The library being fully open signals to the world that nothing’s wrong, even when that’s clearly not the case.’

We were told by library leaders and politicians that being deemed ‘essential’ and staying open during a pandemic would somehow protect us from future cuts, but this hasn’t happened. This risky and politically motivated strategy has not only put library workers and users at increased risk; it has also reinforced the damaging narratives of resilience and vocational awe which class library staff as heroes struggling through the pandemic, desperately trying to justify our own worth by doing more with less.

It’s important to put all this is context. Approximately 1,000 of the UK’s public libraries have closed since 2010, and 10,000 library workers have lost their jobs. We’ve also seen a 30 percent drop in funding in this period. We now have hundreds of libraries run by volunteers: in fact, there are more volunteers in public libraries than paid, trained staff.

And the cuts keep on coming. There have been proposals to close five libraries in Croydon, to cut £500,000 from the library budget in Lewisham, and to cut £1.5 million in Leeds. Similar cuts are on the table in Bexley, Windsor and Maidenhead, and South Lanarkshire. Tower Hamlets Council recently proposed a £1.6 million cut to their libraries budget, but a union- and community-led campaign forced them to back down; nonetheless, I have heard that some library workers may still be forced to re-interview for their own jobs, so the fight continues.

The fight also continues in Essex, where campaigners have led a spirited and inspirational struggle against their council’s plans to slash the library service. They’ve galvanised support throughout the county, including from unions and teachers, and have held protests and marches. This model of community campaigning backed by unions has also been successful in places like Barnet and Lambeth.

Public libraries are a crucial statutory service and cost a pittance to run – usually just 0.6 percent of a council’s budget, and approximately £800 million a year nationwide. Cutting them creates a false economy, causing untold damage to the communities they serve. This is why we must continue to fight not only for libraries, but for library workers: without them, the services will cease to exist.