In Trusts we Trust?

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying what we don’t want without articulating what we actually do want, particularly when we are being critical of something.

And I feel that as librarians in public libraries we too often fall into this way of thinking and expressing ourselves. To a certain extent it is understandable; we are surrounded by the constant pressure of delivering a meaningful service with ever decreasing budgets and resources. Added to this are the opposing opinions of councillors, campaigners, government, the public, national bodies etc. In fact the only voice that seems largely unheard amongst this cacophony is that of librarians themselves.

So it’s no wonder that we develop a siege mentality or react in a negative and defensive manner. But ultimately this is a self-defeating attitude and at some point we actually have to state what we are ‘for’ not just what we are ‘against’.

Taking this as my starting point I believe, both from experience and looking at the national picture, that councillors are, in the main, the wrong people to be currently shaping the development of library services. In the majority of cases they have very little awareness of what libraries actually do, let alone what they are capable of doing, and most decision making around libraries is driven by political ideology rather than a solid, evidence led, business case.

Equally unfortunately, most councillors accept unquestioningly the mantra that communities will come riding to the rescue of libraries or that they can be maintained through the extensive use of volunteers. The evidence, even from the volunteers themselves, is now very much against this approach.

My biggest criticism however is that they take away the control and vision for the service from the people best placed to develop libraries into the future, which of course are librarians themselves.

That is not to say that I am unsympathetic to the financial strain that councils are under as they struggle to continue delivering vital services with vastly reduced funding. This is an unenviable task and, as both a public sector worker and private citizen, I appreciate the scale of the undertaking.

Therefore, any solution for libraries has to be not only creative but also pragmatic. Unfortunately, so far, most responses have been unimaginative and derivative to say the least.

That said, many campaigners have also been guilty of stating what they are against rather than what they are for. The biggest challenge for campaigners, and this might require quite a paradigm shift for many, is that library services will change whether they like it or not. So campaigners very much need to start focussing on realistic solutions. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the Speak up for Libraries conference (Saturday 23rd November 2013).

So what would I like see happen? Well first and foremost I believe that the control of libraries should be in the hands of the professionals…the library staff themselves; to shape, develop, and deliver. Only librarians have the depth of knowledge and expertise to truly run a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service that best serves the needs of the community.

This is not to exclude community groups or volunteers. Libraries have a long history of community engagement and volunteer involvement. However, the best models reflect a genuine partnership of community focused, not community led, libraries.

As Councils develop more into commissioning bodies, enabling a variety of organisations to deliver services, library services also have to consider how best to continue to function and this might well be outside the control of the local authority.

The way forward is to release the creativity of both library services and the communities they serve by establishing libraries as social enterprises. Ultimately, the only truly sustainable service is one that allows for a genuine partnership between libraries and communities. For me, this most definitely would not involve privatisation as commercialisation would take control away from staff, exclude the community, and put profit not people as the guiding vision.

Nor, do I believe it reflects what the Government has in mind since they have stated quite clearly on many occasions that services could and should be transferred to ‘not for profit’ organisations such as co-operatives, mutuals, and charities.

That is not to say that it won’t be hard, or difficult, or that funding won’t be an issue. However, all those things are true now for council run libraries, and added to this is the constant salami slicing approach, year on year, that many councils favour. At least as a social enterprise the decision making will be in the hands of librarians and communities.

So my advice is simple: give us – the library experts – the funding and the freedom, let us get on with it, and see what we can do!

Library quotes (1)

  • The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library; the only wealth which will not decay is knowledge; the only jewel which you can carry beyond the grave is wisdom. – J. A. Langford

As true today as when written and aptly represents some of the core aspects of what for me libraries are about. Not only being universal and open to all but proactively serving the less advantaged, particularly around education and literacy, in order to be a ‘true equaliser’.

  • I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking something up and finding something else on the way. – Franklin P. Adams

We often talk about the ‘brows-ability’ of libraries, just wandering amongst the shelves and seeing what grabs our fancy. I quite often start looking for one particular book or genre and come out with something completely, and enjoyably, different.

  • If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. – Cicero

A personal favourite of mine. Feed the body and feed the mind.

Not so ACE!

Like many others I viewed, with a fair amount of disappointment but little surprise, how ACE think public libraries should be integrated into a wider arts & culture strategic framework. The big mistake here is the assumption that libraries are a strand of cultural provision when in fact arts and culture is but one strand of partnership working and activity that libraries undertake. There is a subtle but very important difference here. Obviously, the biggest mistake was putting public libraries under the remit of ACE in the first place.

This is not the first time that library staff and campaigners have faced a disappointing response from ACE. The Envisioning the Library of the Future report, with its over-optimistic view of the impact of library closures and the ability of volunteers to fill the gap, is still derided by many within the profession. That said, they are a government funded body, so perhaps it is unrealistic to expect them to prioritise the views of campaigners over driving forward the government’s agenda in order to justify their own funding.

Even the SCL have waded into the debate pointing out that the important work of supporting IT literacy, community health, and generating economic prosperity was not reflected in the strategy. In other words, ignoring most of the SCL universal offers scheme.

Rather than cultural provision it is education and information provision that are at the heart of what libraries do. This is their core function, their raison d’etre. A fact that ACE repeatedly, and perhaps deliberately, fails to understand.

Part of Carnegie’s dictum was to “spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can.”  This is still as appropriate today as in Carnegie’s time. And libraries still have an important role to play in helping people achieve this; through supporting formal education, lifelong learning, and providing the best possible access to information. Equally, libraries are about fostering a love of reading for pleasure. This is not a luxury but a social and economic imperative.

For me, arts and cultural activities for libraries are a ‘nice to have’. Whereas, education and information access are an essential ‘have’. In times of limited and dwindling funding I know where I would choose to concentrate my resources.

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NB: A excellent  comment by Desmond Clarke re: ACE strategy can be found on the PLN website.