THE BIG INTERVIEW: Library enemies brought to book
Shirley Burnham, 66, campaigns to save Swindon’s libraries from cutbacks, and is best known for her work with the Save Old Town Library group. She lives in Lawn with husband Tony, a retired civil engineer. The couple have a daughter and a grandson...
HOW does a library user become a library campaigner?
“I loved it from the day I found it. In early 2008 someone told me our library could close and asked if anyone could get up a petition. So I did.
“More petitions followed and have had some success, but the problems – and cuts – don’t go away. We organised a Friends group, which is now a campaigning group.
“In Government there are people who think they are education experts because they went to school when they were kids, and others who pretend to be medical experts because they sometimes go to the doctor.
“I am not a politician, a consultant or a librarian, so should people like me speak out? Yes, because it is the users who must tell the policy makers what the service they value should be like and why it matters to them.”
Her unshakeable belief in the value of libraries and learning perhaps stems from decades spent seeking knowledge and experience.
Shirley was born in Oxford and is one of three siblings.
Her mother was a talented violinist who later worked as a prep school matron. Her father was an electronics engineer.
Convent school was followed by a brief stint at boarding school and then a secretarial college.
Shirley began, but did not finish, a nursing course, although she wryly points out that she learned some useful first aid techniques.
“I really didn’t wake up to the state of the world until I was quite a mature adult. I think I’d just gone through life without very seriously examining issues.
“It was after my parents divorced and I was in my late teens that I started worrying about injustices in society.
“It was a time of protest in the United States against segregation and things like that, so I became a bit more aware, but I was a bit of a late developer when it came to being socially active.”
In about 1971 a blossoming friendship with members of the Mormon faith saw her head for Brigham Young University in the church’s home state of Utah, where she studied French. Already an avid reader, she was able to devour authors such as Camus, Maupassant and Balzac in their original language.
Other US universities were awash with protest against the Nixon administration, the Vietnam War and capitalism, but things were rather different at Brigham Young.
“There was no rebellion on the Brigham Young University campus. We were all as nice and sweet as apple pie!
“Twice a day the American national anthem was played. The flag went up the pole in the morning and was brought down in the evening, and every student stopped where they were to attention with their hand like that...” (here she placed a hand over her heart) “...and waited until the verse had been played and the flag had gone up or down.”
Eventually becoming disenchanted with certain church doctrines, she headed off once more. Finding her way to Honduras, she taught English and prepared textbooks on the subject.
It was in Honduras that she met her husband, and the two were married in the nation’s capital, Tegucigalpa.
Tony’s work took the couple to other countries, including Bangladesh and Pakistan. They eventually returned to Britain in 1994, settling first in North London, then Marlborough and finally Swindon.
“We lived in a tiny little two-up, two-down in Marlborough, but Marlborough is so posh that if you sell a two-up, two-down there you can actually buy a bungalow in Swindon. Or you used to be able to. That seemed like a good idea, seeing as we were getting on a bit.”
There are those who say libraries are a relic of the past, that their functions have been taken over by the internet and that few people want them. Shirley disagrees: “All you have to do is brighten up libraries, make them more user-friendly, refresh the stock and tell the people that the libraries are there.
“There are a lot of people in Old Town who don’t even know that the library is in the Arts Centre. They’re amazed when you tell them. ‘Oh, we thought it had closed...’ It wouldn’t cost the library service much to give it a bit of a puff from time to time.
“You don’t get Story Time on the internet, do you? You don’t get a reading group on the internet and you don’t get... well, you don’t get the library.”
She also rejects the suggestion that libraries should be merged with other facilities.
“A community centre with a shelf of books in it isn’t a library. A library has to have books, it has to have knowledgeable staff, it has to be open when people want to use it.
“And it’s a neutral space. Nobody’s got an agenda in the library.
“Whatever background you’re from, whatever religion you espouse is totally irrelevant. Whoever you are, you’re welcome in the library.
“It’s very different from places that are run by committees.
“Libraries should continue under council control, with paid staff.
“We know they contribute hugely to family literacy and well-being.
“A literate population will boost Swindon’s prosperity and, indeed, the economy of the UK.
“It is just so short-sighted to destroy or downgrade such a marvellous institution.”
- Further information about the campaign can be found at friendsofoldtownlibrary.co.uk
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