Tuesday, 02 April 2024 10:18

Public libraries: an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism

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Public libraries: an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism

Libraries and communism are like Marx and Engels - you can’t have one without the other. Marx did some of his most important work in the British Library. Lenin understood the importance of libraries and made them a priority, right from the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

After his death this work was continued by his wife Nadia Krupskaya and also by Stalin, who recognized that library and cultural workers were ‘engineers of the human soul.’ Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were librarians. Castro made his famous statement to the intellectuals – ‘within the revolution, anything; against the revolution, nothing’ – at the National Library in Havana. He used the same location to launch the Literacy Campaign which, within a single year, abolished illiteracy in Cuba.

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Public Libraries and Marxism

With such illustrious advocates for libraries it is essential that communists continue to promote and defend public libraries which face an existential threat in the face of neoliberal politics and austerity economics.

Public libraries were established in the mid nineteenth century and have survived everything that has been thrown at them over the last 175 years, including Thatcher's attempt to monetise them in the 1980s. Public libraries have an important place in people’s hearts and local communities. Like the NHS, libraries are a cherished national institution that people support whether they use them or not.

Under the 1964 Public Libraries Act it is a statutory duty of local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. But as this requirement has never been legally defined it is easy for cash-strapped local councils to treat libraries as low hanging fruit. Since the 2008 financial crisis hundreds of libraries have closed and thousands of library workers have been sacked.

The minimal savings generated by these closures have been massively outweighed by the social costs that can be measured in increased crime rates – particularly youth crime –- and decreased education and health indices. Public libraries are the glue that sticks communities together and when they are closed bad things happen, including increases in obesity and smoking levels, teenage pregnancies, hospital admissions and prescriptions for anxiety and depression.

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Public Libraries and Social Justice

Another reason for communists and socialists to support libraries is that they are an island of socialism within a sea of capitalism. They are a form of collective wealth that is redistributed free at the point of need. If public libraries had not been invented, they would not get off the ground today. For who would fund a public good that purchases books and gives them away for nothing? Imagine pitching that idea to the vultures and jackals who inhabit the Dragons’ Den.

Communists and socialists should join and support local campaigns against library closures such as the ones that are currently being organized in Birmingham and Nottingham. These campaigns are an effective way for comrades to connect with local communities and show them that communists care about the services that they rely on to have a good quality of life.

For more information about how you can support your local public library see here.

Read 262 times Last modified on Tuesday, 02 April 2024 15:06
John Pateman

John Pateman worked in public libraries for over 40 years and was the Head of Libraries in Hackney, Merton, Lincolnshire and Thunder Bay (Ontario, Canada). He is the author of several books including Public Libraries and Social Justice and Public Libraries and Marxism.