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.
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.