Jess Haigh has kindly allowed us to re-publish this blog post about a Read-In she took part in on 5th February at Leeds Central Library. Jess originally wrote it for the Guardian Leeds blog.
It’s 11.45am on a very windy Saturday and I’m in the entrance hall to the Leeds Central Library, lugging around four hefty bits of slogan covered wood.
With me are two police officers, a camera crew, a lanyard-wearing member of staff, and a few young women like me, in kitten heels and cardigans. We’re trying to figure out where best to sit to read a book, without getting in anyone’s way.
The library is already busy; all the computers are full with people scanning international papers online, checking their email and doing their homework: there’s a group of parents with their young children in the brightly decorated area, surrounded by tiny shelves full of magic.
There’s a queue at the issue desk, staffed by the friendliest people in the world, as people loan books, pay their fines, and make the most diverse of enquiries. One library staff member is helping someone log onto a computer for the first time. The tables are pretty much occupied both by older women and men reading, and a man and his child, sharing a story together.
The police officer is concerned there might be trouble brewing; rumours on the net apparently indicate as much. “How many are you expecting?” they ask us, “we’ve no idea, about 30?” my fellow skirt-suit wearer replies, “we’re just going to read some books”.
Protesters at a read-in at Leeds Central Library Photograph: Sarah Bradley
In the end, the 50 or so people scattered around Leeds Central Library for the two hours on Saturday were hardly starting a riot. As part of the national Save Libraries day, where members of the public, writers and celebrities came out in force in favour of maintaining library services in the face of the most severe of cuts, we were there to highlight the issue, use the library services available, and show solidarity with the library staff and users.
Twenty branch libraries in Leeds are facing closure in the forthcoming council proposals, with the opening hours of the larger libraries adjusted. Around the country figures vary, however the overall threat to libraries is very real.
It’s 12.30pm and I’ve just loaned out my quota of books. As a member of the Leeds Library, I am entitled to take out twenty items, which I spend a happy half hour choosing from the massive and wide ranging stock available.
There’s about 30 of us now, scattered around the floor, and tables, reading, talking and comparing notes and stories. Someone stops to offer her support; as a retired librarian she agrees that fighting the closures is more important now than ever. The camera crew is interviewing a women with her little girl dressed as a cat explaining how she loves books, and how much they would miss the library service.
Libraries are a “soft” target. No-one dies if a library shuts down.
Sure, there will be no other safe, quiet, non-judgemental place for teenagers like I used to be to sit, and work. No table and chair for the older people to read their newspaper in the company of their friends, for free.
As one woman puts it: “when you’ve got your bus pass, you can’t afford books”. Yes, Amazon sells them for a penny, and everyone reads eBooks now, but £2.75 on postage is a hell of a lot when your living on £70 a week. Try telling someone who does not own a computer they must learn enough English to be able to stay in this country in six months, before they’re deported, during which they’re living off food stamps, by downloading a book. Soft target, indeed.
By quarter to one there are 40 of us.
There are children and babies, young students, middle-aged protest veterans reading biographies of famous Whigs, and pensioners arguing for better opening hours in their local branch libraries.
We’ve found David Cameron’s biography, and much hilarity ensues. We’re reading graphic novels, autobiographies, Mills and Boons, non-fiction tracts, button encyclopaedias.
A protester at Leeds library. Photograph: Sarah Bradley
Every new arrival is greeted with smiles and offers of finding a chair, given a questionnaire the Leeds Council have produced on the library consultation. One protester lives in Bingley, can she join in? Of course she can, a visit to the issue desk and she has her own library card, and soon a bag full of Russian Classics she’s always meant to read.
From a librarian’s blog, to a facebook page, to links to the Twitter campaign started by an ICT lecturer and soon trending worldwide, this issue, like the sale of the nation’s forests, has gripped the public’s imagination. Sadly, this may have sidelined other incredibly important issues that have come about from the failure of successive governments to tackle the inequalities that result from the current economic systems, and legislation surrounding the distribution of wealth.
Under threat of closure
At half past one we’re all still reading, with one little boy asleep peacefully in his pushchair. One young woman tells a journalist how she meets her dad in their local library, under threat of closure in the proposal, every other week. Their entire routine will be shot to pieces if it closes.
Another goes to the issue desk to join up; turns out she was already a member as a child, and still has a book out from 15 years ago. The returns bin is already full; people who want to take their quota to help with the statistics but can’t carry home 20 books on the bus issue and return over and over again.
I remember the stack of shelving I have waiting for me in my work library on Monday and wince for the staff, who throughout are friendly and on the whole welcoming, considering how much of a pain having 50 people sitting on the floor of their workplace must be.
Many people have stopped to talk to us. The police stick around, watching us reading. At two we all quietly pack away, put the chairs back at the tables and the Mills and Boons, much derided but often the first things ever read for pleasure, back on the shelves.
A surreal protest?
We all share smiles and promises of future protests. One person later describes the read-in as surreal, others as their “favourite protest so far”, illustrating the solidarity these times has brought. I lug the books I couldn’t bare to part with home, to add to my to-be-read pile.
We might not have had a famous author doing a reading, or thousands of banner waving militants outside making the police even more nervous.
But we came together, from wherever we were before, and, I think, made our point; libraries are used, are needed, and should not be subject to cuts.
Even if one more person joined their library on Saturday, that is a success. If one person discovered their libraries catalogue online, that is a success. If one person reads just one more book as a result of seeing libraries on their local news that night, that is a success.
We have had free libraries in this country since 1850; by letting go of them now, even piece by piece we are deriding the original principles under which they were founded. We should be standing, or in this case sitting, together now, for libraries, for keeping public services public, for people’s rights to live and rights to learn. Without that, how can we possibly be a society, never mind a big one?