As a hundred communities campaign together to save Britain’s libraries from public spending cuts, the 160 year old Victorian library, in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight has shown that peaceful protest pays.

Ventnor Lib

Ventnor library had a mass borrowing protest recently that emptied the much larger central library in Newport of its books.   Up to thirty books per customer were stripped from the shelves and returned to local libraries threatened by Coalition cuts.   I have spoken to various local librarians about this and can attest to the strength of local feeling.  The library closures, like the forest sell-off, are starting to prove to be a headache to the Coalition.

I was there to report on the mass-borrowing event and spotted Rob Jones, the head of Isle of Wight Libraries standing on the library steps. He was surrounded by canvas bags jam-packed with books and library supporters urging passersby to “borrow as many books as you can.”  The protest was working and inside Newport library the shelves were practically empty. The place was buzzing, the press got their pictures and Ventnorians were one step to saving their library.

Last Saturday, just three weeks before the local council will make its decision whether their library will shut down, Venoronians were at it again.  This time they were gathered together as part of the national day of action they called Ventnor Rocks.

Newport empty shelves

As the most civilised of protests got underway in Ventnor, across the country, similar stories were unfolding. (In Somerset, 11 out of 34 libraries have been earmarked for closure.  Half the libraries are threatened with in Oxfordshire and it’s was similar story in Leeds, where even the city’s Central Library is danger of being culled).

Sarah Bradley, coordinating the campaign to save Leeds Central Library, said. “The plans to close libraries across the country are an exclusionary measure. Libraries give people the chance to try out different authors and read different types of literature that they might not usually, which is so important to society.” 

As I listened to one speaker after other telling their stories how libraries had touched them or their family’s lives, the collective sense of loss at Ventnor library was palpable.    The poetry readings, heart-felt speeches and music gave the place a melancholy aurora, but somehow, the pressure that had built after weeks and months of waiting for the council’s verdict, had emboldened the local community and kept Ventnor’s library doors open.  

An officer at the Isle of Wight Council, who preferred not to be named, told me. “The granting of the partial reprieve from closure is good news for Isle of Wight libraries. Councillors discussed the matter on Tuesday night and decided that Ventnor library will be kept open to the public for 21 hours per week.

With echoes’ of David Cameron’s flagship “Big Society” policy,  the spokesman added that libraries would  be “evolving into closer local library partnerships with their communities, this will enable library staff to train volunteers to further expand opening hours if there is local demand.” 

The Ventnorians peaceful protest really does seem to have paid off.  The mass borrowing stunt in January and the Ventnor Rocks event on Saturday has rattled the conservative run Isle of Wight Council into making a U-turn, and put the coalition government on notice that local people are not always going to take cuts to their public services lying down. 

George Brown, the forthright Council cabinet member responsible for Isle of Wight libraries said, “While we do have to reduce expenditure on our library service as part of the overall need to save £25 million in the coming two years, we intend to do all we reasonably can to protect libraries in all areas currently served and furthermore to help establish new provision in areas where there currently is none."   Quite a turnaround, given that the Isle of Wight’s Council’s original plan to close the library within a year.  

Lauren Smith, national spokeswoman for Voices for the Library has said, "Once a library is shut it will never reopen. When councils realise what they have done it will be too late."  The harsh reality is that that hundreds of libraries, like Ventnor’s are facing closure and once they’re shut down their unique ability to connect people will be difficult get back..

Simon Bertram, a former library worker, himself and made redundant last year, said “It means a lot to people. There are not many places to go to that are free.  Many people are lonely, especially the elderly and they come to us for someone to talk to.”

Government cuts show no signs of abating, swimming pools, community centres, even public toilets, are under threat of closure.  Walking away from Ventnor library on Saturday afternoon, just three days before the council threw it a lifeline, you couldn’t help feeling how wrong it would be if the doors to Ventnor library, and its 160 year history, would be gone forever.  

As I left I turned to Rob Jones, the head of Isle of Wight Libraries, and thanked him for all he had done.  Rob had come in especially to lend his support to the Ventnor staff on this busy day.   He said to me, with what looked like to me a tear in his eye, “It’s not us that have done this, it’s what the people want it, but it is nice to know that so many people have come in today to show us we are appreciated.”

The fact is, that the long running campaign that saved Ventnor library would not have happened without the Isle of Wight Campaign Group. The Save Britain’s Libraries campaign, like the one that took place in Ventnor library on Saturday, is showing us that peaceful protest really can pay.

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