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The dissolution of the libraries: a fightback from Old and New South Wales

Tim Williams

By Tim Williams,

Forgive me a moment of pride. I have discovered that some very fine people from the village of Beddau, where I was born, are resisting the closure of the local library. Beddau is a former mining village on the edge of the South Wales Valleys. When I grew up there it was an almost entirely working class community into which a public sector middle class bussed in to provide welfare and education services. Of these services, apart from my school, the only one I was really aware of was the library. I got my first library ticket at 5 years old, before the library actually acquired its one building. Until I was 6 or 7 the library carried on its business from the back of the local Miners Welfare club. Then a spanking new branch library building was open with tons of new books. Somewhere between this library, its dedicated staff and my home I was made a book-reader with a voracious appetite for the printed page. My library-fed bibliophilia grew ever stronger and carried me almost unaided to Cambridge and Oxford Universities and a Ph.D at the University of Wales. I was so aware of this that when I was asked at Cambridge where I came from I used to say ‘from Beddau and books’. I add:so strong was the commitment to learning in my culture that I can say with Karl Miller, the founder of the London Review of Books, who himself came from a mining background that it wasn’t until he went to Oxbridge that he realised it wasn’t just working class people who read books.

I mention all this because when the cash-strapped Council which funds the Beddau library announced its closure I was both incandescent and depressed and wondered at whom I should point my Kalashnikov. While contemplating my guerrilla campaign against the philistine leadership of the council I suddenly realised that some people I knew in Beddau weren’t going gently into any goodnight; nor were they raging ineffectually. They were fighting against the dying of the light. And quite effectively.

Their campaign is not just to keep the library open as a council facility. It is to run it as a community-backed social enterprise. I have been asked to support it. It’s inspirational and brilliant so how could I not? Pride may come before a fall but if this happens I would be delighted to be the fall guy. Already the campaign has attracted great support from the local community and the organsiers have the right idea that to be viable the library needs to be more of a multi-use facility than previously – perhaps having a café or a food cooperative and a crèche. There was a tradition of community self help in mining communities and indeed early health and social welfare interventions were once funded by the pennies of the miners. I was myself helped to go to Cambridge by a small gift from the local miners’ lodge. Furthermore, many of us worrying about the corrosive impact of conventional state-welfare on a once self-reliant community have always pointed out that that form of welfare isn’t the only way communities can be supported. They can support themselves through community enterprise as they once did. Indeed, given the fiscal crisis of the local state in Wales – and the absence of private sector jobs – we are going to have to rediscover our communitarian enterprise roots and not just in the form of cooperative consumption but of cooperative production and innovation. Good on yer Beddau: lead the way to a more sustainable and reinvigorated South Wales. Just don’t ask me for that book back!

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