Libraries and the riots

Having introduced myself, I’ve been very quiet! The problem is – where to start?

I thought it would be good to follow on from Ken’s posting about the role of librarians in a world of austerity by looking briefly at some issues here in the UK.

As you’ll know, August saw riots across the UK, and, whilst the analysis of the reasons rolls on (with many a political twist!), a number of issues is coming to the fore, including:

  • The growth in inequality – according to The Equality Trust: “UK income inequality increased by 32% between 1960 and 2005. During the same period, it increased by 23% in the USA, and in Sweden decreased by 12%.”
  • The reality of life for some young people at ‘street-level’ where, according to Camila Batmanghelidjh, “large groups of young adults [are] creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules”
and, most recently:
  • “Young people who got involved in August’s riots were more likely to be poor and have special educational needs, government research on the unrest has revealed.” (Children & Young People Now, 24 Oct)
So – what can libraries do?
Quite apart from recognising, understanding and making available a range of information to show that there is more than one point of view,  libraries (and museums) have been starting to respond to needs of their local communities, eg:
  • A “Wall of Love” made up of messages posted in Peckham, south London, following recent rioting, is to be preserved at Peckham Library as a permanent display (according to children’s author Alan Gibbons’s blog)
  • Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham, north London already has an exhibition running, “Broadwater Farm Exhibition – Heroes and Homemakers” (which runs until March 2012), and are now planning a project called “Forgotten Gangs”, which will focus on giving a voice to those young people who are not in gangs, reflecting a positive image for young people in the area.
  • The Museum of Liverpool is also addressing the recent riots with an interactive exhibit in the People’s Republic Gallery that will gather visitor responses to the unrest.
And there’s much more we could do … However, a huge issue at the moment is the level of cuts and closures (more on that in future postings) – I’ll finish this one with a terrific piece of advocacy by Boyd Tonkin, literary editor at The Independent newspaper:
“If it wished to rebuild mutual trust, social capital and motives for hope and change in the riot-wrecked streets of a nation’s cities, where might a truly idealistic society begin? …
I know and have heard all the possible objections to a view of local libraries that puts them at the heart of community renewal. Potential rioters and looters don’t care about them anyway. To enter a library in the first place identifies a young person as part of the solution, not the problem. Feral teens who trash the shops will not take an interest in the library until the day dawns when it agrees to stock top-brand sportswear and flat-screen TVs.
Perhaps, just for once, a sharpened sense of desperation might open political and media eyes to something other than plausible cynicism. If the local library system did not already stand, it would take uncountable billions to build. It serves (or did, until the cuts) many of those neighbourhoods bypassed and shunned by other amenities. Libraries are not schools, or courts, or job centres, or social-services outstations. At their best they embody an ideal of voluntary personal development and civic solidarity that few other sites could ever hope to match.”

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