A vibrant campaign to save Essex libraries is gaining traction. Jean Quinn, teacher and National Education Union member, reports on how they are organising to stop the mass closures
Essex County Council announced in November, 2018 that they are planning to close over 33% of our libraries and unless volunteers come forward (not a viable option) then 60% of all the public libraries in the county will shut. For some towns, this would mean a distance of over ten miles to reach the nearest library.
Immediately, SOLE (Save Our Libraries Essex) non-party aligned campaign groups, sprung up throughout the county, with the aims of fighting these proposed cuts and persuading Essex County Council to invest in the library service and bring it into line with current day changes in the way we read and access information.
Meetings were organised largely through word of mouth and the SOLE Facebook page which drew in committed people who were passionate about the role libraries play in their own lives as well as in the lives of the quarter of a million Essex people who hold library cards. 10,000 leaflets have been distributed in the Colchester area alone; they explained the proposal and listed ways to oppose it. These included the usual suspects: write to MPs, borough, parish and county councillors; sign both the local paper petitions and also the online 38 degrees one; complete the (skewed) online Essex County Council Consultation Survey (advise on completing this was given on the SOLE Facebook pages, including not to offer to volunteer) and encourage supporters to spread the word.
Person to person
Our biggest campaigning tool, however, has been personal contact. This was often started by the simple initial invitation to sign a petition which in turn was then an opportunity to talk; thus sharing our feelings of anger and outrage. An example of this was when, by early February, campaigners from Colchester leafletted outside Tiptree Library (because the library was under threat but no one had come forward to save it). They then met a local resident who had grown despondent, believing he was alone and that the situation was hopeless because it was all a “done deal”. However, the enthusiasm, energy and commitment of the Colchester visitors fired him up to speak to others and begin the fight back in Tiptree. The SOLE Facebook pages have also been a brilliant way of co-operating and sharing information, ideas and advice. The collaboration from Harlow to Harwich has been inspiring, bringing the whole county together in our united aim to keep our libraries open.
For supporters, who had their local libraries threatened, more direct action has been taken. These often took the form of “Book Raid” or “Community” days where many dozens of people turned up at a pre-arranged time to “raid” the library of its books, however, it was all undertaken in a celebratory atmosphere of and friendship and enjoyment. Outside Manningtree Library, on their “Community Day” were various children’s art activities including fun with making animal shapes from balloons. In the village of Wivenhoe supporters made a “Wishing Tree” and even saw some people arriving dressed as book characters! Leaflets and petitions were always available outside the libraries on the Book Raid days with the press also invited. In fact the local press has been extremely supportive by not only featuring the Book Raids and demonstrations but also on a couple of occasions assigning the whole of the Letters Page to objections to library closures.
Joining up the action
It was also felt that schools could play a vital role in the fight, so various people who had personal links with local schools contacted governors, head teachers, school librarians etc. asking them to campaign too. One supportive junior school (in a village where their library is in jeopardy) sent all 240 children home with a campaign leaflet. Students at Colchester Sixth Form College joined SOLE members, to petition and leaflet their fellow students as they left the premises at the end of the day. One committed nine year old addressed the cabinet members of Colchester Borough Council in the public “Have Your Say” slot as did a Year 11 student from a local comprehensive school and a woman who, until this campaign started, had never done anything political at all. What a big step for all three!
A large Essex-wide demonstration took place in the county town of Chelmsford on Saturday 9 February, with coaches arriving from outlying areas. There were passionate speeches, especially from three school children. We sent a clear message to the fifty-four Tory County Councillors, who have the power over this issue, that this is a dreadful proposal which needs to be scrapped.
Gallery - images from the SOLE facebook page
Hundreds out for the Essex-wide demo on Saturday 9 Feb at Essex County Hall in Chelmsford:
Front cover of the Billericay Enquirer at start of February:
A protest in December outside Essex County Hall in Chelmsford, including support from Unison union that represents library staff:
'Book raid' in January:
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