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Report from ‘The Power of Local’ at How Power Corrupts

June 13, 2011

Originally posted on 13th July 2011 on the Roundhouse Journal website as a report on our public symposium and book launch, ‘How Power Corrupts’

This roundtable event began with  HPC co-host Chris Meade  describing the Unlibrary, which was inspired by his realisation that when we go to libraries we are often equipped with the largest possible collection of information already – the internet on our laptops. Why do these places still matter? Similarly, when a Crouch End bookshop closed recently the community was scandalised – despite the fact that the community itself could not support the bookshop with sales.

Mr Meade suggested that these contradictory impulses indicated that we need to return to the fundamental ideas behind institutions such as libraries and community bookshops. Libraries are spaces, in his view, for collaboration – which is why the shelves of the unlibrary are filled with profiles of its members. Bookshops, meanwhile, are important spaces for the community of readers that emerges around books, not as objects but as carriers of ideas.

From the audience, Councillor Mike Harris took up this theme when he recounted the difficulties Lewisham Council faced turning over five libraries to the ‘big society’. He argued that people still expect the state to provide such services. Forestalling the conclusion that the inevitable result of such moves is privatisation, panellist Anke Holst argued further that either fighting for government funding or selling out are not the only options.

Instead, a broad if cautious consensus emerged that the decline of such institutions as the public library might allow for new kinds of spaces and collectivities to emerge. Roundhouse member Dora Meade cautioned that uncritically defending older forms might actually re-legitimise them and their dysfunctions. To be sure, the kind of creativity that might find ways of engaging with the corporate sphere constructively, it was argued, might also help us take on stewardship of our collective knowledge when we can no longer afford librarians – or no longer need them.

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