Friday, 05 July 2013

Whatever happened to ‘publicness’? Last week I chaired a panel debate on community managed libraries, at the national conference of CILIP (formerly and more recognisably The Library Association). It’s hard to keep up with this rapidly changing but hugely symbolic issue. I try to do so not least because – as I have argued often before - our libraries are one of the few things left that consolidate the public realm. For three years now whatever is regarded as public has been under sustained, unambiguous attack by the present government under the guise of ‘necessary’ public sector spending cuts. Deliberate inaction in defence of the public library network, by the minister with responsibility for them, is in my view manifestly strategic. I am not likely to forget having been at the pre-election launch of the big society three years ago, when we were told that ‘Neighbourhoods will be able to bid to take over the running of community amenities, such as parks and libraries that are under threat.' The ‘threat’ had yet to be articulated but the clear message was that if people really wanted their public amenities, they would demonstrate this in practical ways by showing a readiness to manage them unpaid: and if not, those resources, tainted by the ideology of being collectively owned, would be allowed to wither. Some still haven’t seen the plainness of this particular writing on walls all round the country. Many people seem ready to blame their local council for the circumstances they find their libraries in, but it’s just too much intellectual effort to work out why those councils – and the economy - are in the state they’re in. Of those who recognise that the problem goes beyond local government, most seem to have signed up to the myth of excessive Labour spending (even though there is 'no evidence that increases in social policy spending caused a crisis in the public finances preceding the global financial crisis and recession’ - Lupton et al, 2013); the rhetoric of shirkers and scroungers; and the narrative of public sector profligacy and incompetence. All of which serves both to deny the culpability of the financial sector and to smokescreen the systematic dismantlement of things that are public. And while we watch people in Greece, Brasil, Egypt and elsewhere express their anger against exploitation and manipulation by the Haves, in this country we go all quivery-mousy and get on with nibbling our own tails. The sheltered, lethargic indifference and lack of political awareness seemed to have its dull echo at the CILIP debate last week, reinforced by the fact that those who work for local authorities are unable to express criticism of their employers’ policies. The tone of passive acquiescence in the room was largely about acknowledging the apparent inevitability of the current transformation of the library network into a mix of different, experimental forms of governance and day-to-day maintenance; but it also smacked of political naivety in a very English sense. The speakers and I will be working on...

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