Challenge accepted?

For fans of American sitcoms the title of the post will be recognisable from the series ‘How I Met Your Mother’ in which one of the characters, Barney, usually takes on a fairly ludicrous challenge to comic effect. This is a whimsical way of presenting a more prosaic challenge, or rather opportunity, in relation to my recent series of posts about community libraries.

The posts were, in the main, aimed at other library staff and professionals rather than the wider campaigning community. That said, many campaigners have kindly taken the opportunity to read and comment on them!

One thing the posts have highlighted is how few choices are actually being discussed and mostly seem to reflect the following options (with minor variations):

  • Library closure (not as prevalent as might first appear but often a tactic to compel volunteers to step forward and ‘save’ the library), which can lead to next option
  • Community group library: transferring the library over to a community group to be run outside of local authority control. The initial support to enable this, both financial and advisory, varies from council to council but can be quite substantial
  • Deleting staff posts and then using volunteers to keep the library open. All other services and support provided by the parent library service.
  • Using volunteers in complementary roles to maintain or extend services but making savings within other areas of the library budget e.g. stock fund
  • The library service being established as a trust either singularly or with one or more related services

There is another approach, or view rather, particularly among campaigners, which is that no reductions at all should be made. The potential consequence of this is that reductions will, by necessity, have to come from elsewhere within the council if the overall savings are to be achieved (this sentence has been reworded from the original post to provide clarity).

However, to argue that cuts should not happen to libraries is unrealistic and ignores the financial situation that councils, and services, face. For instance library services have seen a 30% reduction since 2009/10 and are likely to see further reductions for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, there might be other approaches that have not been considered. With that in mind I would like to offer the opportunity to write a guest blog regarding different forms of alternative provision other than the above approaches.

I am genuinely interested, as I am sure are others, to hear if there are different solutions to closures or handing libraries over to volunteers that have not been considered. I am certain that many campaigners at both national and local level have given the issue some thought and would welcome the opportunity to promote their ideas/solutions.

So, challenge accepted…anyone?


11 thoughts on “Challenge accepted?”

  1. In response to your “challenge” I should like to refer you to the ancient tradition of single combat, when each side would send out their “champion” as the representative of their respective armies, and the two would fight to the death. Such a contest would either settle the matter, or serve as a prelude to the ensuing battle.

    Long after David and Goliath, and Achilles’ clashes with Ajax, duels became very popular throughout Europe, finishing off thousands. Later on, it was more often politicians who opted to settle their differences in this way; issues would be debated on the “field of honor”. This often took place right before an *election*. Sound familiar?

    Bear with me. I may be over-working this metaphor a bit, but there are parallels. There is the Sieghart Review which seeks ‘evidence’ in much the same way as you are doing here. And I want to point out some inequities:

    There may be more than one small problem with the “challenge” you and others (inc. Sieghart) are offering. The school of pragmatism which gives birth to inquiries like these is populated by many, including leaders of CILIP and the SCL. An almost impenetrable barrier stands between the library user and those responsible for its provision and oversight – locally and at DCMS level – making it impossible for the user to be allowed a clear shot.

    This is exacerbated by public consultations launched by LAs which, all too frequently are a skewed, box-ticking exercise and, in some rare instances, vulnerable to fraud.

    The second problem with this “challenge” is that the weapons at the disposal of the challenger and challengee are, in any duel, supposed to be identical – but they are certainly NOT.

    When “challenged”, the library user/campaigner has always been facing pistols, but his opponent has disarmed him before the contest, leaving him holding a puny slingshot and just a few rocks to hurl.

    There are forces alligned against him, see above. He has always been told not to argue that cuts to branch libraries and frontline staff should not happen – *long before* the current cuts to grants from central government. He is also told that local authorities are impotent and that their inability to fight central government for what is rightfully theirs is a fact of life. Furthermore, library defenders are discouraged from totting up the £millions wasted over the years by their local authority – and laughed out of court if they emphasise the value of the professionally-run, local, *accessible* branch library. The user is increasingly the victim of all kinds of coercion – bullied into travelling to a wretched ‘hub’ in which the public library is often little more than a hollowed-out add-on.

    Unless the profession and all those with statutory oversight listen to the majority of library users, their challenges and requests for solutions will always be met with some suspicion. Maybe yours will elicit pragmatic answers from others: I know of several who’d love to put their oar in and would give you, probably, just the sort of replies that in good faith you might be seeking. I regret I cannot do this myself, not when the field of (even friendly) combat is so weighted against people like me.


    1. One of the things I admire about campaigners is that they are able to bring far more influence to bear on Councils than paid officers and their commitment to public libraries is obviously very high. Council officers can advise, and even have a frank exchange of views, but ultimately are subject to the decisions made by elected officials. Whereas campaigners can bring more political pressure to bear.

      That said, librarians have to pick up the pieces once the cuts have been made and provide a library service with reduced funding and less staff. And that’s where we differ. You can refuse to engage and say you are not interested in pragmatic answers but those who manage library services cannot afford such a luxury.

      On the other hand, perhaps you agree with the Save Lincolnshire Libraries approach that states “We SAY NO to all cuts to our vital library services”? Perhaps your stance is that there should not be any cuts and reductions at all to library services? This is certainly a valid viewpoint, and if it eventually prevails would be welcomed throughout the country by librarians and campaigners alike.

      I do find it disappointing however that an experienced and knowledgeable campaigner as yourself, who has so often denounced volunteer led libraries, is unwilling to offer a viable alternative.

      In the meantime I, and many other librarians, will continue to consider what solutions we can, prepare for further potential cuts – let’s not forget that the next financial year for public services could potentially be the worst yet – and be thoroughly pragmatic in keeping library services operating despite the many difficulties.


  2. Always love a challenge but I fear that Shirley, with her usual clarity, has pointed out the issues. The crux is that we as campaigners have no power over the allocation of budget (except that by shouting loudly enough we can make politicians realise it is not an entirely soft target) and whatever else a good library needs it does need a location, books, infrastructure and people to run it. Those cost money. Of course one solution would be Andrew Carnegie reborn – but why should government be let off the hook of providing a statutory service which has enormous cultural, social and educational value but is actually quite cheap?


  3. Here’s a suggestion… instead of 150 different and separate library management systems, the English Library service could have just one. And it could have one set of specifications for servicing library books.

    That would save the cost of 150 systems departments, 150 different and expensive tendering processes (each of which is paid for by the price of the systems themselves), and the cost 150 servicing departments and distribution networks (with the consequent reduction in the cost on purchasing new books and the cost of tendering for book supply contracts) .

    It would mean that we could have one national approach to the question of how to acquire ebooks for reading and reference. It would mean that we could cut the cost of library supply

    It would mean we could easily have one practical national library card and a simple inter library lending network

    It sounds a huge step – but it is exactly what the Irish have just decided to do and the libraries in Northern Ireland did some time ago ( and they may join together).

    If it were managed properly it could save more than all the cuts that library authorities need to make ….


  4. I think you misrepresent campaigners when you describe the position, ‘that no reductions at all should be made and so savings would have to be found from elsewhere in the council’. There may be a few who’ve argued that, but most want not only a decent library service, but also proper housing, schools, parks and swimming pools. And why shouldn’t we? We fought for them and we pay for them.
    ‘Austerity’ is a nonsense. There is no shortage of money in modern Britain. How much money, stolen from us, sits in financial institutions? If we mobilised those trillions, we could afford the public library service a modern country deserves.


    1. Apologies, I accept the sentence is awkwardly phrased and gives the wrong impression. What I meant to highlight was that some campaigns do not find any cuts acceptable and thus the consequence is that reductions will, by necessity, have to come from elsewhere within the council if the overall savings are to be achieved.

      This is the situation at Spring Hill Library in Birmingham:

      “Councillors at the Ladywood District Committee announced they had dropped plans to close Spring Hill Library due to the strength of opposition shown by the local community…The District Committee said that savings would be found elsewhere, and this raises the danger of moving other facilities into the Library building and reducing the library services, as well as further cuts to play centres or neighbourhood officers.”

      Equally, the Lincolnshire campaign states “We SAY NO to all cuts to our vital library services” and so has the potential to displace reductions to elsewhere in the council. I think we have to acknowledge such consequences exist.

      In terms of the financial institutions you will get no disagreement from me but unfortunately it is unlikely to happen, or at least not for the foreseeable future, and does nothing in practical terms to help deliver services in the face of real cuts at this precise moment.

      As I say in the main post I would be more than happy to hear about solutions that do not involve closures or handing over to volunteers. Unfortunately, so far no concrete suggestions have been forthcoming.


  5. I totally agree with Tom about debunking the austerity myth and the position you describe misrepresenting the majority of campaigners, most take a more holistic view of what’s going on and don’t allow themselves to be hoodwinked by the ‘we must make choices’ argument.
    As Tom says we have more than enough money in the country to fund all public services but the governments agenda is an ideological and not a fiscal one.
    As for practical ideas what about stop wasting money and resources on over-diversification, management consultants, agency staff, costly outsourcing and procurement contracts and instead re-focus resources on local libraries, trained paid staff, reading/learning materials and IT. Time after time this is what the majority of research and consultation has shown that the vast majority of library users want so why are we ignoring them?


    1. Totally agree about the austerity myth and the fact that what users want is a well-resourced service. However, that hasn’t stopped councils reducing library budgets by 30% (and more).

      We all know that the next financial year is likely to be even tougher, a fact that was highlighted in the Guardian this morning: “The closure of public services such as leisure centres, libraries and youth clubs is likely to intensify over the next two years as councils across Britain deal with a tipping point in their finances…”

      With that in mind perhaps you could expand on your theme on how councils can stop wasting money…? As I’ve said, all practical solutions gratefully received.


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