One size does not fit all
Along with ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA), one other phrases that has gained in popularity when discussing changes to libraries is that one size does not fit all, usually followed by a reduction in the level of service! In the debate over library provision it has become one of the main declarations by both politicians and councillors to justify libraries leaving local authority control.
The phrase was used recently by William Sieghart when commenting on his report into the future of libraries. Whether the comments indicate a pragmatic approach towards libraries or one of political expediency – that is, taking us down the path the DCMS and ACE wish us to follow anyway – remains to be seen. Sieghart is still consulting so perhaps the final report will deliver more than his comments indicate.
As a profession, librarians have known for a long time that one size does not fit all, and in practice there has always been different levels of service and provision depending on library size, usage, and locality. What was common however was the effort to uphold standards and ensure all communities received a basic level of service regardless of location. In this sense one size did fit all. It was a concerted effort to provide and uphold the quality of service, particularly around the now defunct national standards
Unfortunately, the phrase has come to mean something more insidious: as an excuse to undermine professionally run and managed services and to justify off-loading libraries to community groups. It seems rather ironic that despite being told one size does not fit all there appears a fairly standard, uniform response by local authorities, which is to hand over libraries to volunteers. In classic doublethink terms community groups are apparently the one size that fits all!
Rather than involving the community to genuinely tailor and improve services – which is easily done through focus groups, friends groups, and volunteers in added value roles for instance – the phrase is now used to cloak cuts and pressure communities into taking on libraries regardless of local opinion or capacity. This was highlighted tellingly in a comment by Liz Waterland Chairwoman of The Friends of Deeping Library in April this year:
‘May I correct an impression that readers may have gained, following your news item about Nick Worth’s opinions on library closures. The word ‘volunteers’ is only correct in so far as we are unpaid and are preparing to run a Community Library should we have to. We haven’t volunteered to run a library; we are being forced to do so because Lincolnshire County Council have threatened us with the closure of our popular and well used facility if we don’t. We will do our very best to step in if we have to but we would much rather that our library stayed open as the professionally run, properly staffed and funded community asset that it is at present. Neither alternative, of closure or community take over, is of our choice; we are being forced into this position because we are not willing to see the end of our library in The Deepings. The Friends of Deeping Library have been told we must ‘do it or die’ – the choice between them is NOT voluntary!’
The idea that one size does not fit all has in part been driven by the principle of localism. The rationale being that councils and communities have a greater say in how funding is allocated and spent locally. However, as the comment above highlights local opinion is often over-ridden in the drive to deliver savings.
While many aspects of localism are praiseworthy, in practice it has been used to justify deep cuts to relatively small areas of council spending. A point noted by the chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association recently:
‘The cuts are falling disproportionately on leisure, libraries, culture, art, transport…and environmental health. The smaller services…Some of those smaller services will no longer be viable. You cannot continuously improve a service that you’ve cut by 40%. It’s just a logical fallacy. We need to think very carefully about the future of some of these smaller services.’
Such cuts are set to continue and the LGA warned yet again that:
‘In spite of cuts, local authorities will continue to try and protect spending on adult social care next year as much as possible, which could be at the expense of popular services like buses, libraries and leisure centres.’
So given that large parts of council budgets include social services or protected priority areas the actual pot that local communities can influence is relatively small.
The attitude underlying the phrase, and indeed the localism agenda itself, appears to be a rejection of professionalism in the mistaken belief that it is more important for services to be community rather than expertly run. This certainly seems to be the case for libraries (many would also argue that the same view applies to free schools).
One point in favour is that it allegedly gives local communities more influence in local service delivery. But having a say in library services and running them are completely different. The first is a genuine impulse to involve and thus improve services, the second to cut costs and operate with unpaid labour, with the lessening of expertise and quality this entails.
Despite the spin about engaging communities and given them a greater say ultimately it is about savings and as such it is disingenuous to claim that services can be improved in the face of severe budget cuts and reduced professional input.
The one size does not fit all approach also undermines the progressive impulse of libraries towards alleviating inequality in terms of learning, health, social wellbeing, and digital inclusion, amongst others. The continuing drive towards community managed libraries risks the creation of a two-tier service that exacerbates rather than alleviates inequality.
There is also a misguided belief that communities possess either individuals or groups with the capacity and resilience to deliver local services. Recently, a group of volunteers in Lincolnshire resigned en masse in response to the increasing and unrealistic demands made upon them by the local council.
Unfortunately, the slogan has now become a superficial excuse to impose inferior levels of provision on communities. It is an approach that also favours higher level socio-economic groups and disadvantages socially deprived areas.
Localism vs regionalism?
Localism is also counterproductive to wider approaches such as the universal offers, the desire to reintroduce national standards, and a more strategic approach to libraries that we see in Northern Ireland and Wales. Greater interoperability between local authorities was one of the main points made by both campaigners and organisations in submissions to Seighart. For instance, Cilip argued that:
In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient…there are lessons that could be learnt from the rest of the UK.
In Northern Ireland, five former Education and Library Boards have become one new authority, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (NILA) operating outside Government. The economies of scale achieved have helped NILA deal more effectively with the reductions in funding it has faced recently.
In Wales there are now also serious proposals to reduce the current twenty two local authorities by about half to improve the cost efficiency of service delivery.”
From his comments Sieghart seems to have rejected this proposition. While I think it is unlikely that the national approach we see in Northern Ireland would genuinely work in England there is no reason why reducing the number of library authorities and operating on a regional basis would not be effective.
Certainly, greater regional autonomy and power was the basis of Lord Heseltine’s No stone unturned: in pursuit of growth report, and a similar approach advocated recently by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. However, it is difficult to envisage how such a regional approach could work without first removing responsibility from individual local authorities and amending the 1964 Act.
Terminology matters. In the battle of ideology over library services, words and phrases dictate the underlying philosophy and attitudes towards current and future provision. The over-use of trite phrases such as one size does not fit all risks rendering quite complex arguments into meaningless sound-bites and souring genuine dialogue between councils and campaigners over very real budgetary constraints and challenges.
Sometimes one size does indeed not fit all but equally when it comes to quality and standards, sometimes it can. In contrast, localism is creating only fragmentation, inequality, and a hodge-podge of inferior library provision.