Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Advocacy and libraries...

Yes, it's one of those tired librarian clichés but as a profession we remain collectively reluctant to boast, brag, blow our own trumpets, big ourselves up... whatever you want to call it. We know, of course, that we provide an important and valued service but when it comes to sticking up for that service and proving our worth, our rallying cries all too often get drowned out by other interests in the ruthless scrap for political and financial support.

Since returning from Michigan earlier in the year, I read with interest all about the efforts of staff at Troy Public Library. Faced with library closure, these smart activists posed as a clandestine political group and used Facebook to invite those who opposed the tax rise which would save their library to attend a ficticious Book Burning Party. The campaign went viral and provoked such an outrage that 342% more voters than expected eventually went to the polls to vote on this 0.7% tax rise, which was passed by a landslide, with over 70% of residents wanting to keep the library's funding or even increase it. Here's a short video all about it:

I wrote about my involvement in the Brent SOS (Save our Six) libraries project in Thing 12 and I continue to try to help out with this campaign by signing petitions, attending various fundraising events and generally doing what I can. Yesterday I managed to get hold of a superfluous library trolley and somehow cram its unweildy frame into my (not very big) car, for example, so that this can be used by Preston Road Library. To my mind, there is a lot more those of us working in other library sectors could be doing to help those working in the public libraries which (thus far) are the ones which have been worst hit by spending cuts.
An example of successful direct action here in the UK was the sit in organised by staff and users of New Cross Public Library last February. This was blogged as it happened hereThanks in no small part to the dedicated band of protestors who were prepared to take part in the overnight 'read-in', the library managed to avoid closure and the New Cross Learning project is now run by the local community:   

New Cross Learning (previously New Cross People's Library) maintains most of
its former services and boasts an impressive programme of community events

I still feel a little guilty that my previous post on London libraries was so North London centred (especially as someone living south of the River myself!). In an attempt to redress the balance, I would recommend New Cross as an example of how library volunteers are doing it for themselves nowadays (with some help from local charitable organisations like the New Cross Gate Trust). If you are able to get there, I would also suggest popping half a mile or so down the road to the Deptford Lounge for comparison. This is one of the new breed of 'super-libraries' popping up in London and I feel these two libraries together provide as indicative a snapshot of UK public libraries in 2012 as you will find anywhere:

It should be noted that I visited both libraries back in January, which doesn't really give a fair reflection on either library. New Cross Learning (pictured above left) has had a lick of paint since then, courtesy of its dedicated volunteers, while the Deptford Lounge (pictured above right and below) had only just opened. The Deptford library has managed to secure a prime location by sharing its space with an Academy, appartments and a host of other activities (such as a top floor, open air basketball court!). I sensed these were uneasy living arrangements at times, it has to be said, with much of the building being unavailable to the public during the Academy's opening hours. The library stocked only a small collection when I visited, although all of these books were noticeably brand new too. There was a clear emphasis on providing a bright space for learning and on encouraging use of new technology:
Another shot of the exterior as unfortunately the photos I shot inside the Deptford Lounge didn't come out very well!
Clapham Library is a project which is similar in many ways, this time sharing space with a heath centre and a 12-storey appartment block. The library was able to keep its budget relatively small ('only' £6.5 million) as a result of this private-public partnership. It is a modern take on the round reading room style, as perfected by Sir Robert Smirke when he built the British Museum's Reading Room. It includes a long ramp which winds its way around a large hall and Children's Library at the centre of the building and a Guggenheim-esque spiral stairway on the other side:   

Most of the collection (of 20,000 items) is located on the
ramp which runs around the outside of this main hall

The ramp also hides alcoves which house quiet PC areas

Look closely enough and you might spot cute little plastic
figures atop these L-I-B-R-A-R-Y letters!...
 Of the 'super-libraries' I've seen, Clapham has to be my favourite so far. There's a lot of fun ideas, from its unique spiral signage to the jagged shapes carved out of the walls.

...See! There they are!! (Oddly enough, upside-down
plastic legs seemed to feature prominently here!)
This talk of spirals has reminded me to mention aMAZEme which is on Royal Festival Hall at the moment. Some 250,000 books (enough to fill a medium-sized academic library!) have been collected and featured in an installation created by two Brazillian artists which puts visitors right at the very centre of an ambitious book labyrinth... hurry if you are thinking of going along as it is only on until this Sunday, 26 August!:

An audio-visual literary tour washes over aMAZEme participants as they browse the stacks

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