Privatisation will save public libraries, but at what cost?

Seb Wheeler

Valiant efforts to save five libraries under threat of closure in Lewisham have failed. The council yesterday agreed to a massive programme of cutbacks, which included the shutting of libraries in New Cross, Blackheath, Sydenham, Grove Park and Crofton Park by the end of May.

The news is especially disappointing as, at the end of last year, Lewisham mayor Sir Steve Bullock invited community organisations interested in taking on the running of the libraries to come forward and submit their own plans of action to the council. Sir Steve’s idea has failed miserably.

The closing of the Lewisham five comes at the end of a week which started with David Cameron re-launching the Big Society. Controversially, it was revealed that large private companies, rather than noble volunteers from the general public, would be bolstering the scheme.

Interestingly for followers of the great library fight, epitomised by the ‘read-ins’ that occurred across the country earlier this month, reports appeared detailing the involvement of an American group, the LSSI, who specialise in managing libraries. It has set itself a target to take over eight UK libraries by December, with more to follow in 2012. Obviously the group won’t make much of difference to the 400+ libraries under threat, but it is an indicator of how things might be run in the future.

In Lewisham, the battle for the libraries involved an impressive cross section of the community. Up to 20,000 signatures were obtained in support of the services they provide, and subsequently presented to the council. In Blackheath, pensioners were doing the pressurising while over at New Cross, hardy activists instigated a 24-hour occupation. And then there was everyone in between. But together, their efforts were futile. Amidst the protest, Lewisham council gave the opportunity to community groups to take over the libraries, but it seems as if no sustainable plans could be made.

So, in lieu of grass roots groups, it seems as if companies like the LSSI may have to be employed to maintain the structure of the Big Society. The LSSI will not shy from installing a coffee shop to raise funds, or self-scanning equipment to streamline the payroll, but it may well be the only way to save doomed libraries, and other public services, if the community doesn’t have sufficient plans otherwise.

Libraries are sacred public places that should be saved at all costs. Privatisation will keep some of them safe from the cull, but will also erode a space usually free of corporate interest and meddling. David Cameron has raised the stakes. If the community can’t do it, his crew of companies will. So, with the fate of the Lewisham five now finalised, and private forces such as the LSSI on the horizon, the time for petitions and direct action has passed. Communities now need to think of solid, viable ways to keep threatened services such as libraries open. Sustainable plans need to be made to stop private forces plundering the wreck that the cuts have created.

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