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!