Demonstrators with banners Demonstrators come together to save their Essex libraries. Photo: Jean Quinn

NEU member Jean Quinn speaks with Katherine Connelly about the successes of the Save Our Libraries Essex campaign

A few months ago, National Education Union member Jean Quinn reported on the dynamic Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) campaign. After a partial climb down by Essex County Council, I spoke to Jean about how the campaign was able to achieve this and what the next steps are.

First of all, congratulations on a fantastic campaign. Please may I start by asking about the threat that libraries in Essex faced from the County Council?

The original proposals in November tiered every single library in Essex 1-4. Tier 4 was instant closure, no questions asked. Tiers 1-2 were relatively safe but still with cuts. Tier 1 applied to places like Colchester, big towns. But it would still mean: no free newspapers, no music scores, no online courses available there. So, cuts all round.

Tier 3 applied to the small satellite towns of Manningtree, West Mersea, Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe and Tiptree. They are all between 9-15 miles of Colchester. Colchester’s not very far away from these, but it is if you have children, if you’re disabled; West Mersea is an island – if the tide’s up, you can’t get there! The proposal here was that these could be run by communities. Initially people – and I was certainly one of them – thought “Oh, I can see the attraction, you’ll still have your library this way.” But actually, you wouldn’t necessarily have the same building because the County Council could sell it off. And there would be no computers, the books wouldn’t be in the inter-library loan and you would be given 200 books as a starter. Some people have more than 200 books in their studies! In addition, groups would have to pay for the heating and lighting of the building. So, it wasn’t as you’d envisage it. Essex County Council tried to sell it as a wonderful community coming together, but it wasn’t, it was a way of making cuts. The biggest fear is that the libraries the Council own (some of them are leased or hired) will be sold off and a block of flats will be put up. 

The online survey Essex County Council produced has been totalled discredited. It wasn’t even addressed to most of the people who use the library, 24% of whom are under 11 years old. I asked for a survey for my grandchildren and was offered either a large print one or one for people with learning disabilities. The questions were not appropriate for children, asking about marital status, sexual orientation etc. 

What did you do to counter this threat?

In September we set up Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE). There are a number of groups across the county. We set up a SOLE petition and there were lots of other minor petitions – overall Essex County Council received 50 petitions. We did the usual stuff: issued leaflets, encouraged people to email the County Council and had co-ordinated marches and demonstrations. On one march in Chelmsford, people dressed up as characters from books – so we had the “Gruffalo says no to library closures”. At the end of April, SOLE organised co-ordinated children’s demonstration where the only people on the mics were children with one in Manningtree and one in Colchester, which included drummers, a Scots piper and a magnificent “Hungry Caterpillar Cake”. The ideas was they would be joyous. 

Galleywood School did two outstanding things. On the demonstration in March they had three children write their own poem on the theme of ‘When I am old’ – about what it would be like if there wasn’t a library. They shared the mic, reading a line each which ended with them saying in unison “Yes we can!” Also at St. Michael’s School in Galleywood, all 240 kids donned hi-vis jackets to encircle and hug the library – that hit the headlines. 

In Colchester, we got badges made to raise money for the campaign, we produced a second leaflet which included the email addresses of the nine Cabinet members. This meant that every time they opened their emails, post or newspapers they heard about the campaign. 

Some of the opposition councillors asked for extraordinary meeting to discuss the libraries. We sat up in the public gallery and heard Tory after Tory saying no one uses their library . . . we didn’t know these people existed!

There were places in the County without activity, so we organised public meetings there. One of our messages was to get the Parish Councils and the churches not to put in “Expressions of Interest” for running the library as volunteers. If they had done, we had to persuade them to withdraw. We also addressed Brightlingsea Labour Party AGM outlining what to do to oppose these cuts. SOLE wanted to batter the Council with the strength of feeling.

One of our members had contacts and she got David Baddiel, Billy Bragg, Michael Rosen, David Walliams, Jacqueline Wilson, A L Kennedy and Len Goodman to have a photograph taken holding a piece of paper saying “Save Essex Libraries”. She put one image out on Monday – and you thought “wow”, and then there was another on Tuesday, and the next day, and the next day . . . the impact was phenomenal. That hit the national news and the effect was equal to a thousand people marching.

What is the nature of Essex County Council’s recent announcement?

What is successful, is Tier 4 has been scrapped – but you could be cynical and say that there’s a council election in 2021 so the fall out would still be apparent then and they want to avoid that. 

The other thing is they have said that Tier 3 libraries will be given £18,000 to help with their setting up, spread over 3 years. Somebody – our group is amazing! – has researched how much is spent on each of these libraries and, you’ll not be surprised to hear, it was way over. Last year Tiptree spent £13,362 on the building and £12,158 on acquisitions. So fifteen and a half thousand in one year, and the Council are going to give 18 thousand over 3 years. When asked what the volunteers would do to fund books after that time, we’re told the reply has been, “They can get books from charity shops”.

Furthermore, the librarians are losing their jobs. But having said that, most of the librarians were scrapped 10 years ago. I remember, they used to come into schools and for example: introduce new books to us, show us how to display them and suggest having a policy about renewing stock. In the whole of Essex we have only 2 qualified librarians with degrees in librarianship.   

Essex County Council’s argument is that fewer people are using libraries. Our counter argument is two-fold. Firstly, over the last 5-10 years, Essex County Council have halved spending on books, and that is apparent both on the book shelves and when you request a reservation only to find there’s just one copy of a new book for the whole of Essex. Furthermore, they’re not putting on events which would draw people into the library such as teen book groups or a Harry Potter Saturday etc. Red Lion Books in Colchester has a book group for teens, and it’s full with a waiting list. That’s what library should be doing! We need to make them attractive places to come to. 

Secondly, even if the numbers have dropped, those people do still need a library, those who don’t have a computer need it (people with computers find it hard to conceive there are people without). For young families on a limited budget, libraries remain one of the few free places to take children.

It’s not a complete victory, Tier 3 is the next nut we have to crack. Essex County Council’s mantra is they want libraries fit for the 21st century with toilets and baby changing facilities. Yes, we want that too, but we need money for that. 

Essex County Council is dominated by the Conservative Party. Nationally we are still suffering austerity under a Conservative government. What do you feel are some of the lessons from your campaign about how we resist that?

The first thing that springs to mind is the force of the political fallout. I remember when Margaret Thatcher cut the milk in the ‘70s, and she said had she known she wouldn’t have done it because what she had to contend with was more than what she was saving – the outcome wasn’t worth the battle. And those words stayed with me. We can’t underestimate that, they want their seats.

And it’s solidarity, isn’t it? We have to stay united and get to those people that these cuts affect.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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