Saturday, October 11, 2008

Free digital revolushun. Ur doin it rong.

The sudden closure of Burslem Library last week left me feeling really disappointed.

Sited inside the city's finest building, the Wedgwood Institute, the library is one of those places whose value often goes unnoticed. When I first moved to Burslem, two rooms of the crumbling listed building were being used and through the window you could see some fairly dusty-looking bookshelves. By the time I found myself in Burslem during the day, the library had shrunk into one room, with the rest of this fine building taped off to all those without hard hats.

Despite its very obvious neglect, the library was a haven for me and many others. Inside I could spend the odd hour for free, discovering long-gone voices of Burslem shoppers, child miners and characters. There was the internet.

A long time ago, as can be seen on Stoke council's website, millions of pounds were granted to refurbish the building. Expanded library space would have been shared with business units and the lecture theatre would have been restored. See and regret that the completion date should have been August this year.

Instead, the project got dragged into the very complex and expensive business of reshuffling North Staffs agencies and 'put on hold' while a coherent vision for everything could be developed. It is still on hold. While it is fair that money should be spent carefully, this was funding granted to restore a specific building of great significance to the city. Nobody would have argued that the building needed to be restored, so it would have been better to get on with it than have it eventually shut down altogether after becoming a danger to the public. That a fine building with such an illustrious history should have been allowed to degenerate is not the fault of any individual but of systematic failure going back generations. It's a far cry from the original vision, built by public subscription to widen out access to education.

Today, because no plans could be put into place for the library, it has shut without any warning. This is, hopefully, temporary, but this is a very stretchable word in Stoke. The closure means that between the A500 and the Haywood Learning Centre (virtually the whole of the Burslem South ward), there is no free internet access available to the public (if there are any exceptions to this please let me know).

With all the government efforts towards digital engagement, the fact that this could happen in one of the most deprived wards in the country should be a cause of concern to politicians nationally. Not least because we have two important processes going on right now: the Slater Street Public Inquiry and the masterplanning process for Middleport. Those on broadband can follow these processes online and can have our say by email, blogs or on discussion boards should we so wish; we can read updates on websites. In a library, even the web-averse could read about this matter of public interest in the Sentinel for free. If you can't afford a computer and broadband, or you can't get through the credit check to have broadband then you go back to being as disconnected as you ever have been.

Like so much, people will point to alternatives. All that is in Tunstall, they will say, or Hanley. Haven't got a car? Just get a bus. Walk, it's good for you! All of which is of little use to those with limited mobility, no money, those feeling a little isolated or frightened to take to the streets or to gamble with the public transport system. There's a certain time and feeling in Burslem, after about 3 when most of the shops have usually closed for the day, when you don't have quite enough money even for a lemonade in the Leopard. It's a time when your heart can really sink as you look over the empty buildings and the closed shops. The antidote to this feeling was the library, not in Tunstall or Hanley or up any hill, but in Burslem.

The closure also came in the same week as twinkly-eyed minister for culture Andy Burnham launched a debate on the future of libraries. To which our only answer can be "yes, we'd like one of those please".

So, as is right and proper in these circumstances, I've set up a Facebook group to retain a virtual community in support of, first, having a library at all and secondly, to have a fully developed and fabulous library in the place that our forefathers built for us. So, if you can get online and feel so inclined, please join and show your support with a little gentle badgering of your elected representatives.

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