Tuesday 13 October 2015

When is a Library not a library? When is a community not a community?

What does the word "community mean?" - Just ponder on that for five seconds, before you proceed. 

"The wheels on the bus go round and round...." If you take the wheels off the bus, is it still a bus? I suppose this is a bit too much of an existencial question for a Tuesday afternoon. Did I ever tell you I why I chose maths as a subject of choice? Quite simple really, the sense of order appealed to me. Wheras with many other subjects, you can take a view. In history you can decide that Henry VIII was the greatest ever English King or a Tyrant. In Geography, you can decide that historically Taunton was already part of Minehead. In Architecture you can decide that St Pauls is a monstrous carbunkle and the Grahame Park Estate is the future of British Architecture. But in Maths if X=3Y and Y is 3, is cannot be anything else apart from 9 (unless you are dealing in Octal, when it is 11 I suppose).

Yep Maths gives the world a certain order. But as I entered the crazy world of blogging about Barnet Council, all that sanity and logic went out of the window. Last night, the Councillor in charge of Libraries, Rueben Thompstone (Rube as he likes me calling him) explained to me that all those certainties were nonsense. Why? Because I didn't understand scale. All those years studying. All those nights when I could have been on the piss, but stayed in ensuring that I understood binomial equations and the such like.

You see, he explained during the meeting that Barnet Council Tories value the library service. So as I was walking down the stairs with him, I asked a simple question. Given that the cut that the council made to Council Tax Bills was a tiny amount in personal budgets, did he regret making. The amount chopped off, all thos 25p a week per home, would have completely removed the need for a cut. Given that even his party deem the library service valuable, surely in hindsight the cut was a mistake.

"Oh no, you don't understand. You have no concept of the scale of things!" So I queried this "Just because we have removed X in income from the budget, doesn't mean we could have spent X in income on libraries". So all those years learning algebra but in Barnet X is not equal to X.

Well thanks for the Maths lesson Rube. And you know what the disturbing thing is? Rube's day job is as a teacher. I wouldn't want him teaching my kids maths (proud Dad note - My daughter got an A in A level maths last year).  So having realised that Professor Rube has taught me my years of study, burning the midnight candle were wasted, I took to pondering buses. Is a bus with no wheels a bus? You can put a restaurant in a bus with no wheels. You can store garden maintenance equipment in a bus with no wheels. You can start an illicit affair and have the time of your life in a bus with no wheels. But it won't take you from A to B which is the primary function of a bus. So it is not a bus, it is a bus with no wheels, which is something completely different.

Last night, at the Barnet Council Library meeting to discuss the future of Barnets libraries,  I heard Councillor Rube and Val White, who is a council officer who must have been taught English by someone of Rube's mindset. It sounds like English, it is all rather soothing, but it is a tool cunningly devised to disguise the fact that she is speaking nonsense. I try and avoid big words. This is partially because I am dyslexic, but also because I want to write a blog that anyone who speaks English can understand. Big words don't impress me, unless they are medical terms or breeds of tropical fish. Val White came out with a torrent of tortuous phrases all cunningly constructed to disguise the fact that Ms White and Rube are planning the wholesale destruction of Barnets libaries. Basically the libraries are having most of their usable space closed and used for other purposes. They are sacking nearly half of the Boroughs librarians. This means that many well used libraries will have no librarians on site. They will be staffed by (yet to be identified) volunteers. After much pushing, Ms White revealed that these volunteers are not seen as replacements for libarians. They are sort of seen as unpaid janitors. After much pressing (by me), Ms White admitted that there was no budget for any courses for these volunteers. Not even first aid or health and safety awareness. Remember that this is a public space used by elderly people and children. Ms White revealed that secutity was provided by un monitored CCTV footage. Apparently if there was an incident, this could be reviewed. They are not planning to have any more security staff. There will be a telephone to make emegency calls. It isn't clear who to though. I rather envisage people using this as a cheap way to ring their cousins in New York, but maybe I am just a bad person. The police and the fire service have not been consulted about safety issuese. In a written answer to me, the reason is that the council have their own health and safety team. One has to query how competent this team are, if their idea of security and public safety is a CCTV that no one monitors and a phone hotline no one answers and a security team with no staff. These unmanned buildings will be accessible with a chip and pin card. When asked, there are no checks on whether the person with the chip and pin card is who they say they are.

Because these buildings are unsafe, young people aged 14 & 15, ie those studying for GCSE's can't use the buildings. Are they safe when they are manned by untrained volunteers? This is a grey area.  And what about the stock of books. I calculate that the new library space at Mill Hill will just about hold the entire stock of large print books, favoured by elderly people with poor eyesight. People such as my mother who read three books a week. Which means that this will be shrunk down to a stock that my mother would have exhausted in about six months. She wasn't interested in war histories, or political biogs, so a stock of 40-50 historical novels would last no time.

So is a library with virtually no books, no librarians and no young people allowed in a Library. Well I am sure Ms White and Rubes think it is. Rather like Rubes thinks X=X isn't a valid agebra statement. But it goes far further than that. Take a step back. Think about the NAZI's in Germany. What was the first thing they did on taking power. They started banning and burning books. Did they do this to "save money"? Nope, they did this because Hitler realised that knowledge is power. My father was a wartime Bomber Pilot. He was shot down and was held as a Prisoner of War in Romania. He told me that the Romainans were the warmest, loveliest most decent people he'd ever met. He said that he felt truly sorry for them, as they had been badly manipulated by their own corrupt, NAZI sympathising government. When his rear gunners body was recovered from the wreck of his crashed plane, he was taken to identify the body by the Romanian Air Force. He was then allowed to participate in the funeral service and was given hospitality by the commander of the local base. This man was a highly educated and well read ir force officer. He confided in my father that he deplored tyrants. He said that the Romanians had only sided with Hitler as they thought Stalin was more evil. My father said that this discussion made him realise the power of books. They discussed many of their favourite books. The base commander had learned English to indulge his love of authors like Jules Verne. In the most tragic of circumstances, books had brought people together and forged a common bond.

Now I don't believe Rubes and Ms White are evil or motivated by the same fanatic hatred that fuelled Hitlers book burning. Sadly I fear that what drives their policy is something far more worrying and dreadful. They are driven by pig ignorance. Rubes is responsible for educating the Children of Barnet. Yet he wants to exclude them from libraries. Worse still he is a teacher with a science degree.

Now I am an engineer. An engineers job is to look at a problem and solve it. We make the world a better place. You probably don't realise it, but some of my previous work in previous jobs changed the way you live your life, for the better. This country was made great by engineers. Brunel built railways, Glyn Johns recorded the Steve Miller Band. There are many types of engineers. When I have a spare minute I enjoy reading their biographies. All great engineers have one thing in common. They want to improve things. James Dyson wants to make your vacuum cleaner better Sir Clive Sinclair wanted to put a computer in your house. I understand the engineer mindset. My grandfather was an engineer in Australia. He used to drill artesian wells in the outback of Australia, which brough life, prosperity and employment to a previously hostile environment. My father was also an engineer. After the war, he worked in the motor industry, mending peoples cars. Both my brothers are engineers. One worked on the grab arm for the space shuttle. The other mends old ladies cars when they rust to bits. So we understand fixing things. It was ingrained into us. My father taught us that knowing how to fix something is a skill that can save your life.

So lets look at the Library service as it stands in Barnet today. Is it broken? No, it is popular and serves an important social need. So when Rubes and Ms White take an axe to it, they are acting as cultural vandals. What does an engineer do with a problem? They analyse it and they find a solution. So consider Barnet Council. There is nothing at all wrong with the Libraries. So why do they have the axe out? The answer is not because the Library is broken, it is because the budget of the Council is broken. So they are taking an axe to something which works, to fix something that is broken. Just suppose you are in a castle. It is cold and you have no firewood. Do you chop up the castle door to use for firewood? If you do you are a fool. No you work a bit harder, look a bit further afield until you find something that you can burn.

At yesterdays meeting Rubes thought he was being clever asking Blogger Theresa Musgrove if she would volunteer to work at a library. I wished that Theresa had turned around and said "Listen mate, myself and my fellow bloggers exposed the Metpro scandal. That has saved you enough money since we uncovered it to run all the libraries for a  year. I'll volunteer all right, I'll volunteer to do your job and run the feckin council properly". Now smartyarse Rube would probably say "nah nah nah, I got elected to do this, you have no mandate". That would be another lie. The Tories got elected saying they would preserve the library network.  Another Tory, Cllr Dan Thomas said "you lot only ever criticise, you never come up with any ideas to save money". That again is a lie. Another Blogger Mr Reasonable offered to review the council finances and offer to try and identify savings, he was ignored.  I've written to Councillors on numerous occasions with suggestions and observations that would save taxpayers money. Usually they don't reply. I used to read every report they released, from cover to cover, blog on the savings they could make and offer suggestions to save money. They simply ignored me, so I gave up.

David Cameron got in on a ticket of big society. In Barnet, the bloggers bought into this. But our town hall Tories treat us like a bacon roll at a bahmitzvah. We are not welcome. If we suggest something, it is dismissed out of hand with the word "Bloggers", even though we have been almost universally proven right about every major issue.

But returning to Libraries. At last nights meeting it was pointed out that Colindale is the fastest growing place in Europe. What sort of community are the Tories trying to attract there? Are they trying to attract an intelligent, well informed community? Are they trying to attract a community that values education and learning. If I was looking to move to a new city and a new area, I'd look for one with a sound local cultural scene. Where is the new Theatres in Colindale? Where are the new Libraries? Where are the new local community centres? Where are the new playing fields for youth sport? The Barnet Tories attitude to Libraries is a window to their view of what a community is. Sadly in Britain, community is becoming a redundant term. We simply sit on the sofa, watch telly, eat TV dinners and drink plonk.  If you live in Colindale, Burnt Oak or Hendon, when did you last go to a play locally?

Another good point raised by Cllr Naqvi was that in most other Boroughs, Libraries sit in the culture portfolio. In Barnet, they sit in the education space. This demonstrates that Barnet don't recognise the role of libraries in our cultural heritage. Ms White talked about "the Digital Library". To me this is a horrific concept. It show show little she understands libraries. They are places where people go. A good library is the centre  of a community. A heart. What happens to the body when the heart is ripped out?

When is a bus not a bus? When is a Library not a Library? When is a Community not a Community? I'll let you figure that out. I am taking the dog to the pub to drown my sorrows.

P.S I could have written a short sharp blog, which dissects the Council proposal and explains why each part is a bad idea, I may still do that. But I wanted to get over the point that we should cherish and love libraries and our community. I hope you agree.

No comments: