It is heartening to see so much support for the current campaign to save Headington Library.
Over the past seven years I have been running Friends of Bury Knowle Library, it has often seemed as if only a dozen people cared.
Few if any local councillors were sympathetic or seemed interested in the issue. Many of them approved the suggestion by the City Council to move the library into a shop (to make it more accessible - not of course that they want to sell the valuable premises in Bury Knowle park) and it seemed amazingly difficult to get listed building permission to put in a simple ramp to help disabled people get in. Talking about that went on for years. The prevailing view seemed to be that preserving a Victorian style window here or there was far more important than keeping our library.
We adopted the name Friends of Bury Knowle Library to make it clear that we not only support maintaining a library but believe it should remain where it is in Bury Knowle House.
There are many other issues. Over the past ten years, the county library stocks have been steadily reduced. Older books, most of them expensive hardbacks, have been hastily sold off for a pound or even less, and replaced with videos which can legally be rented out. They begrudge even the cost of keeping books in store when they have not been recently requested. I saw the works of Simon Schama and Antonia Fraser being sold off at jumble-sale prices. When I protested, a librarian picked up one of the books, pulled roughly at its binding and said, "There you are, you see, it's falling apart."
About five years ago, there was an expensive refit of the interior of Bury Knowle library. It was re-decorated and the shelving was all replaced. But there are very few shelves and the design was altered to accommodate fewer books. The same is true of the alterations to the Central Library in Westgate.
Is a library just a building or does it need books?
Another important issue is the quality of librarians. There is no substitute for trained, experienced, professional librarians. When I first moved to Oxford, one of my friends, a graduate, worked at Bury Knowle and was able to pay a mortgage on a small house in East Oxford with the salary. I think she had a lodger in the house but she was definitely on the house ladder. A couple of years ago, I saw an advertisement put out by the council for part-time library helpers, who needed to have only five GCSEs, and would get a very meagre wage. I expressed my concern about this. It appeared to me that library work was being down-graded from a career into low-grade casual work. I was told to mind my own business and not try to "jump up" and make myself a library manager.
In my view, libraries always seemed to work best in the past when they didn't have managers - just proper librarians.
I am hoping that the County Council will see sense and recognize its legal responsibility to maintain a full and comprehensive library service, as required by the 1964 Act. If they try to evade it, I support taking court action, though how it will be financed is yet unknown to me.
Be that as it may, I hope that as a result of this campaign, many more people will become aware of the variety of ongoing threats to the library service, and will get involved with Friends of Bury Knowle Library instead of waiting for a crisis to galvanize them.