Spring 2015 Editorial
By Nia Davies
Something Marilyn Jones told me on my first week of work at Swansea Central library in early 2008: libraries would never have been invented in today’s world. With this the place seemed miraculous; the sweeping views of Swansea bay, its blend of high, low (and everything in between) culture, the invitation to discovery and, away from the children’s zone, a self-imposed hush. Seven years later, with a financial meltdown not exactly behind us, and a term of conservative-led government, Marilyn’s words seem rather too contemporary and ominous. Recent news, reported first in the South Wales Evening Post but not to the library staff themselves, is that the council are selling the building and relocating the library back to the centre of town. Putting the books into the heart of the neglected city centre is not a bad idea. But the fear is the move will be an excuse to cut and scale down. People are naturally suspicious because they understand by now that austerity has been used as cover to rearrange the fabric of our society along far from equal lines. How often do we hear ‘we can’t afford this’ from those who can definitely afford it themselves? It certainly feels as if incremental cuts are slowly dismantling the hard-won structures that empower people. Poetry Wales itself has received a 12% cut in our grant that seriously threatens our ability to publish – we are already on an incredibly tight budget.
These quiet radical places contain multitudes. Libraries are anti-consumerist, they are anti-neoliberal even. Free books! Shared knowledge! All very dangerous to the ideology of labour and spend. In Cardiff I attended a mass read-in to save the library service in early February. The council in this case listened to the outcry, but for how long will we have a proper service? Libraries are an easy target for cuts, not just because the books themselves, so innocuous in their appearance and the act of reading so quiet, not just because they can be labeled ‘luxuries’ in the narrative of austerity, but also because it’s easy to say now that no one needs libraries any more, it’s all available online. Free books. Shared knowledge. If you can get to a computer and use one, ‘it’ is all there in your blue-lit face.
All the free computers in this library were in use as I wrote this – there is huge demand and need. Many of these library users have no phone or computer, nor any warm place to go in the evening. Knowledge should be available for free for all and digital technology does offer this possibility. But the free web jostles with the bought web. It’s lonely, heavily surveilled and influenced by the agendas of corporations and governments, it splits our attentions, it is full of bleak narcissism and it’s not very good for our brains or bodies.
And of course all this free stuff is making it near-impossible for content creators such as writers and journalists to make a living at all. But we can’t turn back now, this still-new world holds abundant opportunities. The digital age forces us to ask questions of our ancient institutions. What is a library for? Not all libraries have kept this question in mind – many have been forced by tight budgets to stock a narrow range of poor quality books and information and leave little physical space for discovery or study. But there are many like Swansea which understand the magical potential offered by a space designed for asking questions; all kinds of questions, from the most practical advice on survival in the new welfare system to the most probingly broad questions of all. And whilst higher education is now impossible without indebtedness and with education secretaries emphasising ‘employability’ over ‘education’, libraries are one of the only truly free things left that allow people to inform, connect and empower themselves in their own chosen way. To live and make things properly we need access to ideas and knowledge. We also need a wide and intelligent arts provision. And free healthcare.
In the US you’ll see gushing examples of ‘people power’ in the writing communities: fundraising campaigns for the highly respected writers who have existed without health insurance for years and are now in their old age struggling to survive and pay for their care. But as the US brings in Obamacare to alleviate some of this, the NHS is gradually being sold off. So in 20 years time we might not be discussing the latest cuts to poetry magazines (long forgotten relics?) but instead how poets will be able to write at all after a taking on a 0 hours contract at Amazon to pay for their lifesaving treatment. How will people be able to read at all after an exhausting day packaging and dispatching books from the Amazon warehouse to the wealthy literati in a distant metropolis? Swansea Central library is just over the road (several roads) from one of these windowless, heavily surveilled, metal Amazon boxes. And, even though I wasn’t paid much more than minimum wage when I worked in the library, I could still take home all the books, films or music I fancied and no one would police my choices. I met all kinds of people. Libraries are the Utopia to Amazon’s Dystopia. Even as I write this however, I read that Amazon are now using robots to do their dispatching for them and so the enterprise becomes completely humanless.
We are fighting to keep PW an independent space for poetry and ideas. Of course we are seeking support lest we become that forgotten relic. But meanwhile we are in need of and offer our solidarity. New creative economies that are based on collaborative action have to be formed. And I still feel tempted to dream. For instance, isn’t it time we had own multilingual Llyfrgell farddoniaeth / Poetry library? A physical and digital space for our country’s most prized cultural heritage. The spaces, the books, the passion and the poems already exist. Poetry libraries across the border were set up from private collections by people who wanted to open up their personal libraries and they are now funded in part by public money and housed in central venues. It’s perfectly possible: it just requires the effort of collaboration. And taxation too. I hear it costs taxpayers in Wales just 32p a week for arts provision. Some can and should pay more. Some need to get access to their arts in the first place. We should use and re-imagine our libraries for a new age but we must also fight for all of our commons.