Time to share?

Catch 22

In the drive towards savings in libraries the greatest losers have been paid staff and in many circumstances the axe has fallen heaviest on professionally qualified staff as, from a local authority’s point of view, these are the most expensive asset of the library service.

Equally, library assistants (or equivalent) have also suffered in the drive towards volunteers taking over smaller, local libraries, either outright or by replacing staff. Now this is not a criticism of volunteers per se, many communities are put in an unenviable position and step forward in order to prevent the withdrawal of a valuable and valued service.

It is unfortunately a catch-22 situation: by taking over the running of the library or by replacing paid staff volunteers enable authorities to claim the success of such ventures and thus risk the domino effect as more and more libraries are given over to the unpaid. Volunteer libraries beget volunteer libraries. But what would happen if communities refused to step forward and volunteer? Would the council still enact such widespread closures or would they fear the political backlash? It would be a very brave community that put this to the test and many are not prepared to play such brinkmanship for fear of losing the service.

So an unpalatable aspect of volunteer libraries is the exploitation of reluctant communities to take on resources they would prefer to be professionally run and staff being deprived of often cherished livelihoods within that same community. Not a situation that is acknowledged in the official spin surrounding so called ‘community libraries’.

Better than closure?

This leads me to a second observation regarding attitudes towards library closures. There have been a number of comments recently to the effect that a volunteer run library is better than a closed library. However, this is too simplistic a conclusion. For instance, closures can have a devastating impact in rural areas but the same cannot always be said for urban areas.

I realise this is a contentious point but large rural counties such as Lincolnshire and Devon with libraries in small rural communities with challenging transport links for example require a different strategy to that of a large urban area with relatively good transport. Strategic based closures can have a part to play in order to protect the integrity and quality of the overall service but this is dependent on many local factors. Therefore, a blanket generalisation that a volunteer library must automatically be better than closure is a logical fallacy.

Equally, the automatic acceptance of volunteer libraries over closures also discourages investigating and challenging councils to consider other alternatives, such as charitable trusts and shared services. A point raised by the judge in the recent judicial review for Lincolnshire libraries. A more contentious alternative is challenging senior officer and chief executive pay, increased allowances for councillors, or the reduction of services in the face of massive underspends and reserves.

Shared services

One alternative that appears to receive almost brick-wall indifference or outright opposition is that of councils sharing library services. Although some very limited moves have been made in this area such schemes are few and far between.
I have referred to shared library services in past posts and also highlighted that many within the profession would like to see a merging of library authorities. Recently the New Local Government Network (NLGN) stated that “Councils should find alternative ways to sustain local arts and culture… (and) should now look to share services such as libraries and theatres as funding cuts are handed down to local cultural sites.”

While not underestimating the difficulties involved there is definitely potential in the shared services approach for libraries (for further information see PLN – Efficiencies: Sharing services). For instance, integrating operational arrangements e.g. stock units and management systems, or merging libraries that are geographically close to each but in  in different authorities. Larger authorities could increasingly deliver services for a smaller services such as Essex and Slough, or staffing structures between neighbouring services could be shared.

Equally, regional library trusts could potentially deliver economies of scale, have access to different funding streams (including direct fund raising), and provide non-traditional services to fund the core offer. Locality have just produced a report outlining possible areas of income generation for public libraries, with some excellent examples and intriguing suggestions.

However, sharing library services seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Equally, it also looks like the idea of library mergers will be missing from Sieghart’s final report if recent comments are anything to go by, which seems to me both a great pity and missed opportunity.

8 thoughts on “Time to share?

  1. The LGA isn’t exactly defending public sector jobs, is it? See below:

    Daily Telegraph : 29th July
    Give (library, etc) volunteers £100 off their council tax bills, say local authorities
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10995699/Give-volunteers-100-off-their-council-tax-bills-say-local-authorities.html

    Which, if any, local authorities have endorsed this?? The Telegraph’s headline suggests that agreement has been reached on the cunning plan.

    You say: “So an unpalatable aspect of volunteer libraries is the exploitation of reluctant communities to take on resources they would prefer to be professionally run and staff being deprived of often cherished livelihoods within that same community. Not a situation that is acknowledged in the official spin surrounding so called ‘community libraries’.”

    The LGA thinks that a 100 Quid bribe to the property-owning middle classes will see the issue done and dusted. “Reluctant communities” – who demand high standards for their public libraries, a universal service accessible to all and qualified, paid staff – are being manipulated (and betrayed) by all and sundry in the most cynical manner. I hope the LGA will get some feedback from the professional bodies, public sector workers and service users – and that it will reflect the fury I personally feel.

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  2. Thanks for another thoughtful and logical piece on the subject of library closures – it is so easy to go for standard responses and pat solutions on a “one size fits all” basis.

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    • Thanks Clare. I am a great admirer of what the RLDG has accomplished. Good luck with your future activities and campaigning.

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  3. I’ve been saying more of less the same from the start, its a national scandal that councils haven’t been pushing share services more, especially considering the huge growth in the internal recharges over the past few years. Both Councillors and senior officers are failing to protect the services and are instead jumping on the ideological big society bandwagon which saves little or no money but shows the library service has had its “share” of the cuts. Its sickening really.

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    • Thanks Trevor, you are absolutely right to have pointed out the waste that sometimes goes on within local government. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for local people to challenge council finances because of the spin and misinformation that often exists.

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