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News & Press: Public libraries

How to run a library campaign: Save Our Libraries Essex

11 June 2019  
Posted by: Rob Mackinlay
How to run a campaign: Save Our Libraries Essex

How to run a campaign: Save Our Libraries Essex

ESSEX County Council’s proposals for its library service have provoked a grassroots, countywide movement to oppose them. Splitting the county’s 74 libraries into four tiers, each facing a higher threat of closure, sparked protests in affected communities. Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) was set up to try and coordinate their efforts and has also managed to enlist valuable celebrity support. This article looks at how the initial local responses have been united and what lessons can be learned to make this process easier and more effective. However it should be pointed out that SOLE is not a formally constituted organisation. It has no officers, bank account or constitution, it is simply a group of campaigners who are working together. Emma Batrick, a SOLE organiser, explains how the campaign has grown and how it is now organised. Andrew Coburn - a CILIP member, Library Campaign Treasurer, former Essex library services employee and longstanding UNISON officer – gives a professional view of the workforce.

Getting involved

Emma used Rhyme Time with her daughter at their local library and when she heard it was under threat wanted to do something. She said the council’s reaction to her challenges “made me so angry that I actively sought out people who were just as interested in keeping our libraries open. I then found the SOLE Facebook group and things have escalated from there. I help to coordinate a lot of my local campaign and I’m also working alongside key members of SOLE across the county to support the wider campaign to save our libraries.”

Organic growth

Asked how coordination and cooperation had come about, Emma said: “We have found that people are so shocked and angry about the proposed closures that the topic unifies people naturally. Running an apolitical campaign has allowed us to speak to everyone, and this is an issue which has found support from every political leaning. We have also embraced a number of communication methods, including printed media and good old fashioned going out and speaking to people, after all, not everyone uses social media or has access to the internet – something that we have found Essex County Council really don’t appreciate. This has given us a very different insight into who library users are and what they want, when compared with the strategy proposed by Essex County Council. It’s also allowed us to create a relationship to draw more people in, and grow the campaign naturally.” The key focus at the start was a Facebook group that was created after the Council's announcement and after these initial contacts were made, coordination moved beyond the virtual world.

Data and media

“We had a meeting not long after the consultation ended to discuss what our next steps should be” Emma said, adding that the decision was taken to divide efforts and people between data and media. The data team has focused on the next stage of consultation, producing a pack for stakeholders looking at running libraries instead of the council which she said “members of SOLE have distributed to district and parish councils. The aim being to fully inform groups on what a community library actually means and the lack of support it involves, so they would truly know what a 'library' would be in these terms and what would be expected of them.” The media team responds to journalists, creates press releases to raise awareness of the council’s plans and what SOLE is doing to save libraries. But it's a collaborative process: "As a team we air our doubts and get advice and ideas from each other to keep a united message."


“Twitter has proved useful,” Emma said “both with a SOLE account and with the personal accounts of SOLE members. Sometimes personal Twitter account messages get bigger responses than campaign Twitter accounts.” The power of Twitter to change the council’s behaviour was demonstrated when SOLE stepped into criticism of the council’s depiction of a transgender person. She said: “We were appalled when we spotted the image, and shocked that ECC could have signed off on something so offensive. It’s through several of us coming together to retweet the transphobia that the Easy Read survey was changed by ECC. The issue snowballed naturally, gaining international media attention.” She said: “A mix of individual and campaign account actions are important. We don’t feel we could have got so much early on through the neutral non-face of a SOLE account."

Celebrity support

Emma said that the first celebrity to add his voice to the campaign was Dermot O’Leary: “We were all taken by surprise and very grateful… he has greatly spurred us on.” Again Twitter was key to finding more celebrity support, and it was the individual accounts that worked best. “We found that there was possibly more trust from personal Twitter accounts, before the campaign name was established, and it’s through here that we were able to obtain a retweet and comment from Michael Rosen and A L Kennedy. A member of SOLE has since been very successful in attracting celebrity and author support. David Walliams’ tweet has so far gained over 61,000 likes, with many people commenting how important libraries are and how shocked they are by the proposed closures. This support has helped us to reach national news, furthering concerns of childhood literacy, isolation and the health impact of driving people to screens.”

Petition management

Petitions are vital part in any campaign, providing clear evidence of support. Emma explained that this was one area that would have benefited from a coordinated approach. “In the beginning it wasn’t completely clear just what a tier three community library would mean, and we now understand that it is effectively a closure. This meant that some of the initial petitions focused on the tier fours – those definitely marked for closure. Petitions were also started in the very early days of the campaign, when groups were spread across the county and were naturally more focused on their own libraries, rather than fully appreciating the benefits of what SOLE would become. Through some coaxing, sharing of information and communication, we have become more unified, but those individual petitions were still submitted.”

She said: “The majority of SOLE’s petitions were handed in on the same day, when people across Essex came together at County Hall. However, there has been a problem in the way that these numbers have been broken down. While some areas have submitted a SOLE petition on behalf of every library in the county, some are headed up with the area name. Essex County Council has divided the petition submissions by individual library. This means it looks as though no one cares about tier three Great Parndon, for example, when the opposite is true. I feel if we had focused on one petition for the whole campaign, this could have been avoided. That being said, no matter how Essex County Council wishes to frame their argument, we are holding firm and will not be pitted against each other.”

Missing allies

One frustrating factor for campaigners has been a separation from library workers – obvious allies considering many of their jobs are at risk. Emma said: “The experience of most SOLE members is that librarians have been told not to get involved with us at all.” As a union representative Andrew had greater access but said: “Soon after the proposals were released, the union visited every library to talk to staff and offer support but also to find out what activities are carried out in each branch apart from the obvious (lending etc.) Staff were told not talk to us but we did get information on every branch which was included in a 14 page response to the consultation. We also asked our members for comments on the proposals in confidence. Some of what they said was included the response too.” He said that UNISON is involved: “We spoke at SOLE's February demo and I know that UNISON members were on that… I am pretty sure that some of them have signed petitions and may well have responded to the ECC consultation.”

Jobs on the line

Andrew said that library staff are fighting a number of battles. “UNISON members in libraries had an added complication during the consultation period. Essex (ECC) has been rolling out a new pay structure alongside restructuring the whole Council… staff are thoroughly confused and fed up.” He said changes in council plans meant UNISON could not advise and it was down to members’ personal situations. “UNISON had negotiated on the new pay scheme but members rejected it and the county went on to impose a modified version. So this gave staff another issue to contend with. When the final decision is made and before it is implemented we assume that there will be a staff restructuring which will result in new jobs and job descriptions - and of course more than half the existing staff may be without a job anyhow if the libraries close or are handed over.”

Dedicated staff

Emma said that the library service employees who had spoken to SOLE said they had been using their own money to carry out library work: “What we have found is that despite the council’s statutory duty to promote library services, marketing support does not seem to be there. One library worker that has come out to speak to us has said that all events except the summer reading challenge are entirely funded by staff out of their own pockets, and they have to devise and implement them on their own.” She also said "For the most part, one dedicated social media account is used for the whole of Essex to promote the libraries" adding “What we have found through speaking to members of the public is that better promotion would increase library usage. There’s a lot to be said for a localised approach, here, with the county being so vast.”

Mission statement

Emma said: “The great thing about SOLE is that we are all working together to try to save all of our libraries. We are stronger together and we work in agreement that we will not be pitted against each other. No library is safe. The tiered approach might be what we’re working against now, but with no investment in the service and a push towards ebooks, those tier one libraries – which it’s proposed will also experience a change in staff in service – might not be around in five years time. We have to think long term and coordinate our efforts for today and the future.” Andrew said: "An Essex UNISON member (now retired) invented the idea of Quick Reads to get people into reading and show them that library have something even for the time poor. The service was traditionally at the leading edge in public libraries in the UK. We think they should be trying to maintain this position rather than destroying the service and the things that have been built up over the years."

Council response

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “We know people are passionate about their local library and we are too. That is why we consulted on proposed changes to the library service to ensure our libraries are fit for the future. Over 21,000 responses to the official consultation were received and we are grateful to those that shared their views. After a full analysis of the survey results is completed, the final version of the Future Library Service Strategy will be presented to Cabinet later this year.”

Photo credit: WJP

Published: 19 June 2019

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