Whose library? Our library! by Katherine Robinson

exterior line 03-04-18
Image by Helen O’Rourke

This photo was taken at a recent protest outside the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, south London.  The protest was organised by Defend the Ten, a campaign fighting library cutbacks and closures in Lambeth’s ten public libraries, to mark two years since the closure of the Carnegie, a month before the local elections on 3rdMay 2018.

Opened in 1906, the Carnegie Library, as its name suggests, was given by Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist-philanthropist who founded hundreds of libraries, both across the UK and around the world.  Carnegie’s gift of £12,500 was awarded to build the library on the condition that the local authority would be responsible for the library’s upkeep through money from local taxation.  The legacy of the Carnegie Library as a gift, and its maintenance through council tax plays out in a powerful sense that the library belongs to the community. ‘Whose library? Ourlibrary!’ Defend the Ten protestors shout on marches and on the steps of the library.

The Defend the Ten campaign is dynamic and creative, tailoring protest interventions to respond to the changing messages from the local authority about their plans for the borough’s libraries.  Campaigners are resourceful and imaginative, both in producing campaign materials, and in making the most of opportunities that arise to spread their message. From a table at a weekly market stall, laden with leaflets and badges, to a Twitter account with thousands of followers, from a huddle of campaigners distributing fliers outside a leisure centre, to the re-working of a classic protest song with lyrics that speak directly to the campaign, Defend the Ten finds platforms in different spaces and at different scales to communicate the protest.

In the image above, the people standing in a line are holding placards featuring images from an initiative by Helen, one of the Defend the Ten campaigners.  Each week for the past eight months, she has published an image of a regular Carnegie Library user on Twitter, along with their story about coming to know and use the Carnegie.  These accumulating accounts evoke a rich mix : childhood memories, experiences of loss and hardship, and their reflections on what the Carnegie Library meant for them and represent some of the many and profound ways in which the library has touched peoples’ lives.  The Twitter stories are also an intensely political action, for each story marks a countdown of the weeks until the local elections and what campaigners hope will be a reckoning for the council.

In my previous ethnographic research in public libraries, I understood my approach as ‘being alongside’ people as they used and worked in libraries.  My engagement with Defend the Ten has become research that has shifted into a closer register, reflecting my deep involvement in the campaign. Despite knowing that the figure of the disinterested observer-researcher is a myth, when I first pulled on my blue ‘Don’t Steal Our Libraries’ t-shirt, two years ago, I took a self-conscious selfie, feeling that this moment marked a significant move. Now, I think of my involvement as something like ‘being amidst’, surrounded by my different commitments and orientations, both to the campaign and to my research.

On that day in early April, standing in a line in our blue t-shirts, we created a live gallery in countdown order, of the people who had told Helen their stories, as campaigners, passers-by, and local news journalists took photos. We waved the signs with the images of people on, signalling the presence of their bodies, even if they themselves weren’t there. As a heavy rain shower opened above us, we patiently held our places in the line for a few more photos, knowing that capturing this moment was an important opportunity to create images that would become new campaign materials, and would circulate further.

Physically bringing people together in this way amplified the digital message of the Twitter countdown and reiterated Defend the Ten’s lively approach to campaigning. Our line of bodies and the images of other people’s bodies and their stories powerfully performed the massed presence of people as a vital tool of protest.  Our presence also carried echoes of the previous year’s anniversary protest, when hundreds of people gathered together to join hands to form a human chain around the Carnegie Library, surrounding the building in a gesture of affection.

Helen’s Twitter initiative and the recent protest gathering underlines how the determination to fight for the Carnegie Library is anchored in people’s experiences of being present in and using the library. And this is constitutive of what is fundamental to public libraries, not democratic participation or access to information as abstract principles, but the ways in which these principles are translated into people’s use of the library in their daily lives. In bringing together these ordinary stories, Helen’s weekly countdown powerfully illuminates the everyday experiences, needs and desires that people bring to the library, and advocates for libraries to be given the political recognition and resources they deserve.

Dr Katherine Robinson is a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths.

 Further reading:

Back, L. (2016) ‘The Library Angel’ in Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters London: Goldsmiths Press.

Puwar, N. (2017) ‘Meetings’ in Gunaratnam, Y. (Ed.) A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John BergerLondon: Zed Books.

Smith, A. (2015). Public libraryand other stories. London: Penguin.


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