Libraries have a position at the center of the future, not as a peripheral reference to the past.
A local district library was under threat from closure by Manchester City Council. After half a decade of staving off the effects of the financial crisis, dodging bullets which took the spirit of pubs, businesses and jobs, the council had to face the real prospect of closing library services, against both the community wishes and UK statute.
A long time ago… well, only a few years ago.
In a galaxy far far away… well, 5 minutes from my house at the time.
With the statute reasoned away as a requirement to provide a library [building] not librarians, the council set about a consultation and then dismantling of 6 local libraries around the city.
Rebecca Stavick’s post is close to my heart for a few reasons. We went through a national library shakeup through an endless series of library closures around the country.
My stupid face and writing was on the campaign to keep Burnage Library open. My stupid signature was on the petition that smashed through the 5,000 signature threshold required for council debate (more than twice the size of all the other areas combined). My analysis formed the data-heart of the campaign from cradle to grave, and the stupid straight nights I spent, analysing the 164 pages of report, released only a few days before the Council’s Executive Committee were due to rubber stamp their plans for closure. My fingerprints wiping the screenprint letters off my keyboard as flurry after flurry of summary, data, tables, maps, transportation routes, made their way into documents, and written scrutiny took apart the council’s position, piece-by-piece, as the council’s analysis was found lacking on almost every front! From economics, to crime, to running costs, to “strategic coverage” to reasoning, to poverty, to downright deception. It was all there in black and white. An insider told me that no council plans have ever been put to that level of scrutiny in his entire tenure and librarians elsewhere in the country, suffering the same fate corroborated this, citing my analysis as benchmark.
The council were left floundering. So they did what they had to do anyway.
We had substantial support. From the local community, to national authors. I will forever be indebted to them for their efforts. But the fact remains…
However unfair, we lost. The council rode rough-shot over the community and passed the flawed recommendations anyway. The huge, heartwarming campaign group, dozens of whom came with us to enter the council chamber on the day of the executive committee meeting, were both distraught and burnt out. The subsequent referral to the Local Government Ombudsman, the body regulating UK local authority affairs, which in practice has no teeth, returned with what was tantamount to an indication that “a process was carried out, it doesn’t matter if the decision was garbage, the methodology flawed or the data illegitimate. A process happened and that is all that’s needed”. In essence, whitewashing the result.
That was my first major demonstration of public sector incompetence and showpiece democracy-dodging. After that, I didn’t want anything to do with the library, the council or any partnerships at that moment in my life. With more than half a dozen people needing help from me, including a few friends and family going through cancer treatment, another charity trusteeship needing handing over, my own business needing some attention, for me, this just wasn’t the time for me to be involved in anything more than I was already involved. It was well over 100 hours a week. I was just spread too thin. Plus, I was tired and I was still angry.
Yet, despite that, I was convinced by a fellow campaigner and subsequent fellow trustee to partake in the creation of the committee to initially manage, then evolve into, a fully registered charity body, given my previous experience. I set a time limit condition of 6 months for my involvement as I wouldn’t know what would come of the other responsibilities I had.
The Fantastic, Founding 4+1
We and 3 others started and 4 of us formed the original “founding 4" committee members. Meeting in a local pub, we thrashed out a plan and approached a housing association, Southway Housing, who subsequently became partners in the venture, making the exercise a 3-way partnership between us, the city council; who would provide library stock (i.e. books) would leave some of their older computers and provide access to the library system, though a self-service machine; and Southway, who would take over the running of the building and the estate’s upkeep. We also negotiated one full-time member of staff and access to two “buddy libraries” for support of our volunteers.
At the same time, as all of this, we created our constitutional documents and Friends of Burnage Library was born.
From Paper to Digital
We also developed links to Manchester CoderDojo, providing opportunity to engage in older coding activities, in a much larger venue, through networked contacts of mine. I’d like to thank Steven Flower and the gang for welcoming us into the fold.
I set up the original Wordpress site, AWS cloud hosting, and the Amazon shop to sell some of the donated books. We were not allowed to put books on the library systems, as the catalogue belonged to Manchester City Council, serviced by impersonal, harsh, self-service kiosks, staffed by a regional development officer we managed to wrangle and buddy libraries in surrounding areas. Yet, it gave us the opportunity to use them to raise funds digitally and they sold! Several a week!
I also signed us up to, and set up the Book Crossing. If donors would rather we didn’t sell the books, we could place them in our Book Crossing, allowing visitors to come in and simply swap or take our book crossing books, each of which accompanied by a tracking code. So you could follow your books from wherever they were found, to wherever they went. The need for them to be curated in a building was disappearing as the community itself became the library, with park benches, hedges and even safe little nooks in buildings becoming places to discover the hidden treasure of reading and crucially perhaps, it had the potential to democratise reading like never before. You didn’t have to be a member of a library to read!
With a volunteer base approaching 40 strong, I plucked the chance to tell the world about it. Manchester Metropolitan University business school held a Library Teechmeet. A library education event in which participants are given 10 minutes to talk about their subject in front of the audience, with a vote at the end to declare a winner.
Make no mistake, we were up against it. None of us were librarians, yet we carted ourselves to the venue. Myself and fellow trustees Tom Northey of ConBrio and Peter Thompson, now venue coordinator at the CodeClub, after I left (and for what it’s worth, the man with biggest heart I’ve ever seen a pretty conscientious noggin too — I tip my hat to you sir) were now in a room of some 50 other librarians looking to learn from each other.
It’s odd, because whilst not the plan, I made some really good contacts from that event.
More and more activities started to be hosted at the library. We made greater use of Facebook, we’d built our own digital signage on Raspberry Pi’s linked to an old monitor facing people as they walked in. I still remember being chased down by a library assistant for almost walking out with it. Really good to know the security works there :)
The team’s ideas just kept coming:
- History group
- Lego Club (Yes, Lego!)
- Sewing Groups
- Storytime for Toddlers
- Crafts and Jewelry Making
- Digital archive and local picture gallery
- Heritage funded projects
- Older people’s IT
- Go Online venue
- Garden parties
- Back to work groups
- U3A (University of the 3rd Age — a further education group for older people)
- Adult coding classes
- Weekend library events…
And much, much more!
I managed to stretch it for 14 months in total, before my schedule got so full, and various caring responsibilities got too much, that something had to give. I’d ditched a few other non-essential responsibilities and there was nowhere for me to go. Make no mistake, I look back and that time and feel there was a lot of unfinished business. But I’m glad to see that now, a few years later, it is finishing up nicely.
Despite this, the library just keeps going from strength to strength. Last week, the library hosted it’s first radio show.
And yes, that is OAP’s working digital equipment for an internet radio station. #JustSaying.
Volunteers have been raising money for the library and are still doing it. Superheros included (yes, shameless plug to donate. Please share!)
Despite this, Manchester’s central library went through a £48 million refurbishment, which closed it for more than 2 years. In fairness to Manchester City Council’s library service, they’ve done a good job of it. The library is actually a pretty nice place to be. Whilst I am still not at all happy with the Council’s devolution of local library service responsibility to our community group, the group has done a phenomenal job of making the charity work. It’s self-sustaining, well used and attended and continues to have great volunteer engagement. Check out their Animal Parade:
For me personally, what has grown from those traumatic and exhausting days, which I have to admit, at the time I sometimes really, really hated, is an enormous sense of pride! The original campaign, energised the community. A community in which I sort of existed, kinda, for 25 years on and off, but really didn’t feel connected to. I didn’t even think there was a community. Yet, events connected each other and with me on a scale I never thought possible!
During my time as a trustee, I watched some volunteers grow so much in their roles and become more confident. Each time I popped in, there was something new, exciting and a new smile somewhere and this is what our library, my library, their library, was doing. People were safe to try things and we seemed to foster a culture where there was no such thing as a “bad idea”. It was fundamentally open and accepting. Everyone tried something hopefully everyone gained something.
I still snoop around the Facebook page every-so-often, if not show my face in the building now and then. I can’t help but want to catch up on how it’s doing.