Since we launched our #WhyBooksMatter campaign to keep libraries open and fight for wider access to books, we have received incredible support from readers, authors and literacy campaigners. Last week the urgency and scale of the challenge was thrown into sharp relief when the Local Government Association highlighted the scale of cuts looming over communities across Britain, warning that cash earmarked for libraries and other services will be diverted to meet a £2.6bn funding gap by 2020.
But there is hope. Many under-threat libraries across the UK have been spared closure thanks to vigilant and passionate campaigners. In our essential library-saving toolkit, they share the keys to their success.
It may seem obvious but any successful library campaign must start by showing the library is cherished by the community. Campaigners trying to save Adlington Library in Lancashire, placed under threat of closure early last year, held a ‘read-in’ at the library, and around 500 turned up to show support. The Friends of Adlington Library (FoAL) group then encouraged people to take out as many books as possible to drive up demand. “You have to show how valued the service is because it becomes the key argument,” says FoAL’s Caroline Hesketh. “Initially the council said people in the area were well-off enough to travel to find another library but I think they realised how isolated many would be without it.”
We were there for every council meeting, every surgery. You have to let them know you’re not going away
In October 2016, Lancashire County Council agreed to keep the library open and have given Friends of Adlington Library the chance to run it as a registered charity from March 2018.
An online petition may not be effective on its own but campaigners say it is still one of a number of ways of informing council bosses and elected officials of the strength of public feeling. In Scotland, North Lanarkshire Council decided in December 2016 to keep Newarthill Library open after a feisty local campaign against proposed closure.
Angie Walker, one of the Save Newarthill Library campaigners, says the group circulated pro-forma letters for the library’s supporters to sign, and more than 1,500 were delivered to the council’s HQ.
“It meant they had to take each person into account, rather than treat a petition as one thing,” says Walker. “We were there for every council meeting, every surgery – we were very persistent. You have to let them know you’re not going away.”
Staging demonstrations in town centres and outside council offices is just one way of generating interest and keeping up momentum. Friends of Adlington Library staged a protest walk from one library in the county to another, while Save Newarthill Library organised fun days and reading events. “We started a selfie challenge, where we encouraged people to post photos of themselves with messages of support about the library,” explains Newarthill’s Angie Walker.
“We also created a parody music video based on Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. A Facebook group is a really good way of sharing ideas. It’s important to try to come up with new ways of doing things.”
In the long fight against the sell-off of Kensal Rise Library in London, campaigners and volunteers ran their own makeshift ‘pop-up’ library on the street outside for almost two years. Then, in 2014, the Friends of Kensal Rise Library group were given the chance to be community ‘tenants’ for the library, following a deal struck by its owner, All Souls College, and the council. “Ideally, no library should be closed but if you’re going to make the case it can be saved and run a different way, it takes a lot of hard work and fundraising,” says Margaret Bailey, chair of Friends of Kensal Rise Library. Grant funding and community events, backed by high-profile supporters like Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith, have helped the group raise £160,000 to have the ground floor of the Victorian building refurbished. It is set to reopen in April.
Saving a library demands lively protest but it also involves staying on top of a lot of dry details over a long time. “You might make an emotional appeal to win support but you also have to expose the council’s own arguments for closure quite forensically,” explains Christopher Hawtree, who successfully campaigned to stop the council closing Hove Library (bosses agreed a rescue plan in July 2016). “We looked at the cost estimates for closure and pointed out their figures didn’t add up.” Margaret Bailey says any library campaign needs as much collective skill and knowledge as can be mustered. “At one point we submitted a 75-page planning objection, even though we had no experience in planning,” she explains. “There is always a lot to learn, so you have to use expertise you have or pick up expertise very quickly.”
If you want to write to your council, here’s a handy template to get you started…