Q1. What is the reservation charge?
If the library item you need – let's say it's a book – is out on loan, or if it's held at another Cambridgeshire library, you can ask for it to be reserved for you. When the book's returned from loan or delivered to your library, it will be put aside for you to borrow next. This system helps ensure that shared resources are used efficiently.
Previously there was no charge to place a reservation. On 13 June 2016, Cambridgeshire County Council introduced as an austerity measure a £1 charge or fee for each reservation by an adult, with a single exemption for those of us whose disabilities mean we can't leave our homes.
Q2. And you're against the reservation charge?
Yes. We believe access to basic library services should be equal for all, not dependent on our ability to pay. We're demanding that the council should drop the reservation charge.
Q3. I'd prefer reservations to be free, but I don't mind paying if it helps maintain library services.
That's admirable. But some of us can't afford to do so. An internal council report (uncovered by our enquiries under the Freedom of Information Act: see our web article, 'No Light on the Library Reservation Fee') projected that a £1 charge would discourage two thirds of adult reservations; in other words, the charge is projected to pull the service out of the reach of the large majority of its adult users. This isn't maintaining library services, but undermining them.
Q4. Times are tough. Aren't we all having to go without things?
Maybe, but that's never been a realistic way to think about the effects of the austerity measures imposed from 2010. One family might have had to go without a new kitchen; another might have had to go without food. We're certainly not 'all in this together', as some politicians were keen to assure us. Better to leave dogma behind and pay attention to who goes without what.
Q5. Is the reservation charge that bad?
No one's going to go hungry because of the reservation charge, but as with other austerity measures its burden falls unevenly and unfairly. For those of us it hits harder, it becomes that much more difficult to get hold of library materials which should be available equally to all. These materials – books and recordings of all kinds – serve very basic needs for information and imagination.
Q6. Who do you say is hit unfairly hard by the charge?
Those of us with less money. Those of us who live out of easy reach of larger, urban libraries and rely on reservations to get the materials we need. Those of us who are exempt from other library charges because of disabilities which don't confine us to our homes. Those of us whose need for library materials is most acute: who are jobseekers, who are immigrants studying for the Life in the UK test, or who need information about coping with physical or mental health conditions, for example. And those of us who are several of these at once.
Q7. If the council drops the charge as you demand, won't it leave a hole in its budget?
No. The charge wasn't in the council's 2016/17 budget.
Q8. If it wasn't decided in the budget meeting, then where?
In response to one of our Freedom of Information enquiries, the council implied it was decided in a meeting of the Highways and Infrastructure Committee (the committee normally responsible for library policy) on Tuesday 1 March 2016, two weeks after the budget meeting on Tuesday 16 February.
But this is contradicted by the published minutes of the 1 March meeting, which endorsed a report in which 'three key ideas' for raising library income were 'selected for further work': sponsorship, renewal of the cafe at Cambridge Central Library, and redesign of the third floor at that library.
The reservation charge isn't mentioned in the minutes and isn't mentioned in the report, but it can be found as one of 44 ideas for raising library income in the fourth appendix to the report, some of which are already noted to be redundant or impractical. In other words, the charge is one of 41 ideas which weren't selected for further work. (See our 'No Light' article for more details.)
Q9. If it wasn't decided in the committee meeting, then where?
The undated internal council report we mentioned above, by the Libraries Management Team, refers to a '1 March announcement date' (if this took place, it was an internal announcement: we believe the public announcement was made on or around 20 May). Does this mean the decision had effectively already been made? Where and exactly when, we haven't yet uncovered.
It seems hard to believe that a new council charge could be ready to announce on 1 March, but unforeseen when the council passed its budget 14 days earlier. This is something else the council has to explain.
Q10. Are you saying the reservation charge is the worst of the council's austerity measures?
By no means. We led local protest against the £48m cuts in its 2016/17 budget before the reservation charge was announced: our demonstration in Market Square, Cambridge, was supported by local community groups, trade unions, and representatives of the Labour and Green parties. Other measures in the budget are truly frightening, such as the cuts that mean fewer vulnerable children will be taken into care.
It's important to lay claim to threatened services by protest, but a small group like ours can't fight dozens of cuts of hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time. This one, however, points to a battle we can win.
Q11. Can you really hope to persuade the council?
No. We hope to persuade library users to take collective action to demand that the council drops the reservation fee. Together, we can create enough political pressure to force change.
Q12. So what can I do?
For now, sign and share our petition to raise awareness, to demonstrate support, and to establish a network for organizing future action.
Cambridge People's Assembly
The text above is that of the printed leaflet titled '12 Questions about the Campaign to Have Cambridgeshire County Council Drop the Reservation Charge', first distributed on 11 November 2016.