From ‘work-in’ to read-in’

Last  week  the funeral of Jimmy Reid took place in Glasgow. Well known to Scots as the leader of the UCS work-in back in 1971, his funeral was attended by many famous faces from the worlds of politics, sport and entertainment.  Among the mourners was Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, who used the occasion to announce that Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) would host a permanent tribute to the famous Clydesider  so new generations could learn about an important chapter in Scottish labour history.

Also delivering a eulogy to his boyhood friend was Alex Ferguson, football manager, who grew up alongside Jimmy Reid in Govan, Glasgow and recalled him as an avid library user.   He recounted an anecdote where Reid was once asked by Jonathan Miller, the theatre director and author, where he’d been educated.  Reid’s reply was ‘Govan public library’.

Jimmy Reid was a passionate campaigner for public libraries. His knowledge was obtained outside formal educational structures and he was often referred to as ‘self-educated’. Reid spoke at the Scottish Library Association Conference in Peebles in 1983 where  he argued that libraries were fundamental to quality of life, to the development of people and social relations, to easing cultural deprivation.   Having left school at the age of 14 with no formal qualifications it was the availability of books and public libraries which meant that he was able to  achieve his potential in life as a trade union activist, rector of Glasgow University and later a journalist and broadcaster.

Of course public libraries today are about much more than books as any regular user will know.  Even so, the latest edition of the Scottish Household Survey records that 63% of adults still cite reading  for pleasure as their main form of participation in cultural activities and there’s little doubt that this includes material borrowed from public libraries.

At a time when negative coverage abounds in the media regarding the future of libraries  it’s useful to  reflect on the life and achievements of self-educated Jimmy Reid and remember that  our public libraries stand for important societal values  including intellectual freedom, equality of opportunity, engaged citizenship and informed democracy.  It’s worth noting too that his original form of protest, the ‘work-in’, is being adapted by library campaigners in Doncaster, who were shown on tv news taking  part in a ‘read-in’ at their local library last weekend to highlight closure threats.

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