Sunday, 16 January 2011

Great activists never die - their tactics live forever

This story about residents of the small British town of Stony Stratford borrowing every single book from their local library in an attempt to stop it from being closed reminded me of an extraordinary 70-something who led a similar revolt (invented the tactic?) some 35 years ago - against the State Library in Adelaide.

Arthur Mortimer was what you'd call a radical librarian - as I remember him, a rather eccentric retiree who rode a bike, read nooks to children and kept time with a alarm clock (wind-up and with bells) that he carried in his shoulder bag.

The post-Vietnam 70's in Adelaide were (amongst other things) the days of the community media movement - a reaction during the late-60's and 70's to the corporatisation of the mainstream media and governments' manipulation of them during the Vietnam days. Pre-Internet and before Julian Assange was born, the community media movement ultimately gave rise to the network of community based non-profit broadcasters we have today.

Interwoven with the community media movement, community information activists (a combination of welfare workers and librarians such as Arthur) were agitating for community access and control over information - activism which led to the network of Citizens Advice Bureaus and Community Information Centres we see today around the country.

And it was within this context that Arthur committed himself to getting library services into the information and cultural desert that was the working class western suburbs of Adelaide.

Again, as my memory records it, Arthur's first step was to get a few mates together and create the organisation C.R.O.W. ("Concerned Residents of the West") - giving his one-man movement organisational legitimacy and gravitas and a base from which to launch his demands for a fair go for the West. 

From there, Arthur launched two most stunning (and ultimately successful) tactics:

  • Assembling about 100 mates and mates mates, Arthur led a march from the SA Parliament down North Terrace past the Gov's place to the State Library where they preceeded to borrow all of the fiction under 'A' and warn that they would be back the following week for the B's etc.  As I remember he got front page of The Advertiser on Monday and we never had to go back for the B's

  • Creating a national security alert (and national press coverage - about library funding!!!) when he sent egg powder in envelopes to federal Cabinet (or was it all federal MPs?) along with extracts from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (a slightly obtuse reference to the '75 Whitlam Government's Inquiry into Public Libraries chaired by one Mr Horton).
All great fun at the time but, the thing is, Arthur won!! - as Susan Marsden notes in her A History of Woodville (1977) (pdf here):
The "West" had long been deprived of good, local library services, and public agitation, led by the humorous, but determined C.R.O.W.'s ("Concerned Residents of the West") stimulated a profound change at State library level to a direct involvement with local libraries. The most dramatic period of expansion in public library services, provided in co-operation with Councils, was between 1977-1979 when 10 new services came into operation in the Western region, three of these in Woodville.
You won't find much about Arthur on-line although I did find this reference which is held in the SA State Library: Information and power : an activist view.

I wonder if Julian Assange has read it?

Enough for now.  Sometime remind me to tell you the story of the Dewhurst's - a couple who saved some 300 young men from going to Vietnam from their Northern suburbs lounge room.

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