marc garrett on Wed, 23 Feb 2011 16:42:41 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> How a Library Saved My Life.

How a Library Saved My Life.

By Marc Garrett. Originally posted on Furtherfield's community blog 

Recently I read Claire Bishop's excellent article 'Con-Demmed to the 
Bleakest of Futures: Report from the UK' 
( Where she argues "that in the 
wake of the general election in May 2010, which resulted in a 
Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition-the UK’s first coalition 
government since 1945—the ensuing cuts to culture cannot be seen as 
separate from an assault on welfare, education, and social equality. The 
rhetoric of an "age of austerity" is being used as a cloak for the 
privatization of all public services and a reinstatement of class 
privilege: a sad retreat from the most civilized Keynesian initiatives 
of the post-war period, in which education, healthcare, and culture were 
understood to be a democratic right freely available to all."

After reading Claire's article I thought that I'd write a little bit of 
personal history regarding my own experiences with early education and 
how a library saved my life...

In the dark ages. The mid to late seventies at the age of 13, my life 
was a troublesome affair. Our family was constantly under seige. Life 
felt like a fatalistic (un)merry-go-round as we tried to deal with 
various, chaotic situations that occurred and impacted our relationships 
on a day to day basis. Whilst trying to negotiate in our own particular 
dysfunctional way, the onslaught of violence in a home on a council 
estate in Southend-on-Sea, Essex; we also had to somehow contend with 
intrusions from over officious social workers. Every route we took led 
to a different form of dis-empowerment. The formal education available 
to me at this time was worthless and offered no way out of poverty. The 
general feeling between us all was that we were caught within a hostile 
system. On the council estate we unknowingly made matters worse as we 
stole each other's toys or formed gangs.

At this time when the country was almost bankrupt. The Labour government 
was receiving international loans of $5000 million to try and prevent 
the economy from collapsing. If it was not for North Sea Oil, the UK 
would of fallen into a state of total collapse. In 1975 UK's inflation 
rate peaked at 26% and unemployment reached the highest levels since the 
Second World War reaching hundreds and thousands. Many companies who had 
previously been based in the UK and investing in the economy, began 
moving their businesses and assets abroad where it was more profitable. 
Strikes spread across the land, rubbish was left outside piling up in 
the streets and the dead were left unburied. Very soon after this the 
age of Margaret Thatcher's (UK's first female Prime Minister) own brand 
of conservative politics and early forms of neoliberalism would begin to 
dominate the land.

When I remember these times, my mind usually focuses on what happened to 
many of my peers after they had left school. A few survived the systemic 
challenges of bad education and social deprivation. Yet, if I use all 
the fingers on both hands I run out of digits to count how many of them 
had either committed suicide, died of drug overdoses, or gone to borstal 
and then to prison. Already at the age of thirteen though, I had a sense 
of the life that I was being set up for and growing determined not move 
in this direction. My heart, head and soul needed nourishment and I was 
not getting it. In order to change my course my behaviour needed to change.

So what was I to do, what decisions should I take to change what seemed 
at the time a hopeless situation, especially when I  was accustomed to 
feeling dis-empowered in the environment I was growing up in?

Every morning I would leave home and pretend I was going to school. In 
reality, the day would begin with a long walk into the central area of 
Southend, where the Essex Library was and (thankfully still is to this day).

For nearly a year I managed to pretend I was going to school, whilst 
hiding concerned letters from the headmaster sent to my parents about my 
regular absence. I would enter the library seeing all the different 
kinds of people, of all ages researching, reading the abundancy of 
books, accessible to anyone. It also had a small cafe then which was not 
much of a deal, but going there for breaks in between reading about art, 
technology, science, religion, sociology and politics etc, helped to 
create a certain sense self assuredness. Sitting in the cafe I would 
overhear adults discuss what they were reading. I learned a lot about 
the enquiring minds of other human beings and felt that I was a part of 
something that until then, was a hidden secret.

I was so shocked that all the knowledge in this place was not being 
shared with me and my peers at school. It also felt as though my 
venture, discovering all of this information was not 'officially' 
allowed. Not for my kind, as in not for my class. To say that I was 
dragged out of the library kicking and screaming, once the local 
council's truant officer had heard about my (despicable) antics, would 
be an understatement. The library was my second home. However, the only 
choice given to me was to either go back to school or end up in a 
borstal. Knowing how bleak and violent these environments were from 
friends who had themselves been there, and noticing how they had changed 
for the worse, the choice was clear. I went back to school.

Now the reason I'm sharing all of this personal history with you is 
because today many libraries are being closed down due to the recent 
cuts by the present government in power. And yes, much information can 
be accessed on-line. But this, in no way replaces the important 
experience of meeting others in a real, physical learning environment. 
And this also goes for education right across the board. If we are 
forced to rely on the Internet alone as a source for knowledge and 
sharing, future minds will be less informed. Market forces increasingly 
dominate the Internet, dictating the interfaces/portals and therefore 
creating bias that privileges corporate values above greater human 
needs. Libraries provide chance encounters in local community settings 
with unexpected sources of knowledge and experience.

If we consider the real reasons why libraries are being closed it all 
begins to fit into place. The backdrop to all of these drastic cuts 
relate to neoliberal intentions dominating every aspect of our daily 
lives. Slogans such as "the big society" and "we are all in this 
together" are promoted by the coalition government; forcing us to 
conform and adapt to what has been termed as the ‘age of austerity'. 
This is proposed to us as a way to level out the effects of the 
financial crisis of 2007-09, while they themselves remain untouched due 
to their own privileged backgrounds and benefits gained from promoting 
corporate interests such as those of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. It 
really does not demand too much insight or mental agility to realize we 
are being conned. We are being socially engineered to bear a burden of 
debts which are not of our own making.

"The reduction of government expenditure is the most overt attack on 
public services, usually with the most destructive effects on the 
poorest. Cutbacks to public services such as the reduction or closure of 
public facilities, either directly through outsourcing or indirectly as 
providers of the next nearest alternative (the shopping centre rather 
than the park, the bookstore rather than the library), pushing social or 
non-work time and spaces into the hands of private ownership and their 
‘facility charges', caps on housing subsidy, unemployment payments, 
disability benefits, and so on, all serve to put what were once public 
responsibilities and interests into the private sector whose ownership 
extends not just to the material facility, service or entitlement (the 
park, the building, the benefit) but also to the right to access it, the 
requirement to generate a profit." Screw (Down) the Debt: Neoliberalism 
and the Politics of Austerity. By Suhail Malik. Metamute.

Thinking back to the harsh times of my early years in contrast to where 
I am now, I owe much of my current state of being to that Library in 
Southend on Sea. What will become of those other young souls who will 
not have the choice themselves to experience alternative avenues out of 
the systemic limits of imposed poverty? The Internet is an extension to 
libraries not its replacement. Education and knowledge is a varied and 
wonderful thing. Once taken away, we are less empowered, more likely to 
conform to the whims of others who do not have our best interests in mind.


I posted this contextual piece of writing to Nettime because of an 
earlier post by Goran Maric - thanks Goran :-)

marc garrett

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