Shirley Burnham's Blog : 24th January 2011


Whose Library Is It Anyway ? : A Hoo-ha in Puddletown, Dorset

Petitions play an important part in raising the profile of a library under threat of closure, whilst drawing a council's attention to public concern.  Many are circulating now, as more and more library authorities decide that closing community libraries is the ideal short-term solution to their budgetary problems.

In Puddletown, Dorset, however, a Friends group is furious that they have been asked to remove their petition from their library.

There is a convention that petitions cannot be lodged on council property and that council staff must not collaborate with residents engaged in petitioning, nor become signatories  --  Understandable, given that the petition means to challenge the council and can be of embarrassment to them.

So what has prompted Mike Chaney, spokesman for the Association of Dorset Friends of Libraries (Ad Lib) and the Chair of Puddletown Friends, to write to the council's head of libraries inviting her to come and remove the petition from the library if she dares ?

Since 2008, with the support of Dorset county council, Puddletown's Friends took over four hours unpaid work a week to extend the library's opening hours.  There are no county council staff on duty with the volunteers and they are not given access to the county council's computer system.  When they open the library they are, effectively, completely on their own.

Importantly, the library building in the village is owned by the Village Hall trust, which is, in turn, owned by Puddletown civil parish council, the equivalent in bigger settlements of a town council.  Whilst Puddletown's library volunteers understand that when they are on duty they are operating a county council facility - they are adamant that it is housed in their property.  They contend that in such circumstances the county council's writ just does not run.  As reasonable folk, they accept that the council can order its own staff not to display petitions and order its own library staff not to do so, but they argue that that cannot stop them from protesting against the council's closure plans within what is, in fact, an extension of their own village hall.

Signing his letter "more in sorrow than anger", the Chair's letter to the head of libraries states :

"What I cannot stomach is your ruling that we volunteers may not express our horror at what is in store for our communities.  I believe we have a democratic right to warn our fellow citizens of the cultural carnage which is about to be visited upon them and to urge them to join with us in attempting to get the threat of closure lifted.

"To assert that right I shall be advising all Puddletown's volunteers to ensure that petitions are not just displayed but displayed prominently whenever we are in charge of our library.  I will further suggest to our volunteers that not only should they draw these petitions to the attention of everyone who comes into our library but also that they urge them to add their names.

"I invite you to come and remove these petitions if you believe your rights as a mere tenant of the building, which is owned by this community, give you the power to act in such a dictatorial manner."

I suggest that it is a great shame that Dorset council, having benefitted so much from the dedication and enthusiasm of these volunteers, seems now to have adopted an aggressive and combative attitude towards the very people who have so valiantly helped them.  Why do councils make enemies of the people they are elected to serve ?  Whose library is it, anyway ?