Although not able to attend I’m looking forward to the Cilip debate this Saturday (27th September) to discuss the proposition: ‘This House believes Local Authorities are still the best way to deliver the public library service‘, with a panel contesting an issue that might have been inconceivable only a few short years ago. After all who else would deliver public library services! But the days of such surety are long gone thanks to the austerity measures of the past four years.
I have always been open in my own views around this issue, which is that local authorities are best placed to fund or commission library services but strategic development should be left to librarians and not councillors. The continuing long list of reductions and closures hardly inspires either the profession or public to put their trust in local authorities and only strengthens my belief that decisions are driven by misplaced ideology rather than sound business practices. In many ways it is the poor decision making by councils that has given rise to the myth that librarians lack business acumen when actually the reverse is true. Many librarians would relish the opportunity to have greater control and freedom over services rather than having to implement inadequately conceived ideas driven by local political expediency.
Library services should be in the hands of the staff themselves; to shape, develop, and deliver. Librarians have the depth of knowledge, expertise and experience to run an efficient service, and one that reflects a genuine partnership of community focused, rather than community led, libraries. The best way to achieve this in the current climate is, in my opinion, through a not-for-profit trust model. I would also hazard a guess that trusts will feature in William Sieghart’s report given that he has praised the Suffolk Libraries model on several occasions recently.
In the keynote speech to Cilip members at the recent AGM Sieghart also stated that urgent action was needed over libraries and likened the situation to Beeching’s closure of railway lines. However, despite the aspirational tone of the speech the unavoidable reality is that libraries, however delivered, need sustainable funding, not only to survive but also to develop. Therefore, it will be interesting to note what funding streams are identified as part of his report and how genuinely maintainable these will be. Equally, it would be a great pity for the report to concentrate solely on measures to keep libraries open without also addressing the issue of paid staff and professional librarians as being integral to service delivery.
One of the panelists, Ian Anstice of Public Library News fame, a strong proponent of public libraries, knows better than most how under pressure services are since he is the main source of news regarding changes to libraries nationally. The fact that this is achieved in his spare time is testament to Ian’s dedication and faith in the importance of libraries.
Another panelist, Biddy Fisher, should bring an interesting perspective as trustee of the Denby Dale Library.The friends group were instrumental in ensuring that the library continued to be run in conjunction with Kirklees Libraries and retain the services of a paid member of staff (albeit for a limited number of hours per week and with funding only agreed until September 2015). The approach of using a mix of staff and volunteers is becoming more common and an explanation by Biddy of how it came about can be seen here. I am sure that the group will be hoping for the council to continue with paid staff at the library but given the current news coming from Kirklees the future is looking rather uncertain.
Obviously, any debate around the subject needs to consider the dwindling settlement each year from national government to local authorities. Added to this are the soaring costs of both adult care and children’s services, which along with the austerity programme, is forcing massive cuts and radical change within the public sector. Until the matter of funding for social care and health services is addressed at a national level, expenditure locally will continue to increase to the detriment of nearly all other services. Whoever forms the next government will have to face the politically unpalatable issue of deciding whether or not to protect health budgets while so many other services suffer. This is the real context in which reductions to local services, including libraries, is set.
Brian Ashley, Director – Libraries, Arts Council England is also on the panel, and will no doubt be representing ACE’s view. I have never disguised the fact that I think libraries have been misplaced with the Arts Council, who fail to appreciate the full scope of what libraries do and try to shoehorn them into a mismatched arts agenda. I wonder if ACE readily funded library schemes not connected to the arts how many more Library Change Lives projects could be delivered.
I am also cautious about their links with Locality in that they commission a body whose core purpose is to support and enable community organisations to research issues around public libraries. It’s difficult to accept that a predetermined bias towards community led projects does not influence the outcomes of the reports, which calls into the question the credibility of its research. Given the resources available to ACE there appears little justification for not commissioning such work from an independent research organisation. Continually resourcing studies in support of community led libraries hardly inspires trust from librarians or campaigners who believe in the statutory principle of libraries and that paid staff are an essential element of the service.
Hopefully, another panelist, Andrew Coburn, former Secretary of the Library Campaign and UNISON activist, will be bringing the opinions of both campaigners and library staff to the table.
This is a important issue and the principle of local authorities as the best way to deliver library services has very real and practical implications for how services could be run in the future, so this is more than an academic exercise and should be treated as such. Perhaps this could be used as a prelude to a policy making exercise in which the outcome helps inform the formulation of a position statement for Cilip to take forward.
Because while discussion is essential in defining ideas ultimately what good is debate without action?