Damned if we do…

Nowadays it’s not often that libraries receive funding rather than seeing it reduced but the Government’s announcement of £7.4 million to increase wifi coverage and internet access in libraries in England has been broadly welcomed in the sector. This was one of the recommendations in the Sieghart report and will bring kudos to the Leadership for Libraries task force.

Sieghart has stated that “I would hope within 18 months every library in the country – including community libraries – will have wi-fi” so it’s clear that the funding will also be extended to volunteer as well as local authority libraries.

That said, there is some questioning on whether or not this is the most effective use of the funding. Commenting on the above article Mick Fortune pointed out that “…leveraging the millions already invested in RFID and using Wifi to help link physical stock to relevant online resources – as is already being done in some European public libraries – and ticking three boxes at once – digital, WiFi and the exploitation of under-used resources” might be the best way forward.

So perhaps the scheme might be refined as it evolves in consultation with library services themselves. Given the IT expertise available in libraries (not just public) Cilip perhaps have a part to play in advising on the best way forward.

More controversial was the additional funding provided by Barclays and BT to provide free wifi and digital support to 57 libraries and 13 community centres in deprived areas across England. This includes support from “Barclays Digital Eagles, specially trained members of Barclays staff who…will work at the new Wi-fi sites to help local people build confidence and develop the skills they need to succeed in the digital world.”

Leaving aside the rather naff name of ‘digital eagle’ (in the public sector we just call them IT support!) many voiced concern via Twitter regarding the ethics of such funding. Particularly from a Bank that has been mired in scandals around Libor, mis-selling PPI, and manipulating energy prices, all of which have incurred massive fines along the way.

I share some of the concerns raised. Unfortunately, the political reality is that libraries are not masters of their own destiny and librarians do not get to make the final choice in these circumstances. Such decisions are made by councillors, cabinet members, and council leaders. Right across the political spectrum it would be a brave council that rejected funding for libraries on ethical grounds.

So while such considerations might give many within the profession pause it would be almost impossible to convince either the public or more importantly council members to reject corporate funding.

Equally, Sieghart has made it clear that this is just the beginning and says that “the government and the task force will [also] look at big corporations making donations of kit – tablets, screens, keyboards etc.”

So given Sieghart’s views and Paul Blantern’s, Chair of the task force, approval of his own library service establishing a donation scheme, it appears that greater corporate and commercial sponsorship of libraries is here for the forseeable future. Whether or not you approve of this will depend on your political outlook and opinion on how public services should – or should not – be funded.

What is becoming obvious however is the fact that the corporate approach is so closely aligned to the current government’s views and ideology that it undermines any claim of independence or impartiality from either Sieghart’s report or the task force. At best the task force represents a mix of political expediency and financial pragmatism. Given that Labour has broadly hinted it will continue with Sieghart’s recommendations I see no genuine change of course from that quarter should they form the next government.

After years of reductions and underfunding councils will take what monies they can get regardless of the ethical credentials of the donors. And I sometimes wonder if the public genuinely care as long as libraries doors are kept open?

So for librarians it’s a case of damned if we do and damned if we don’t, which just goes to prove that occupying the moral high ground can be a very lonely watch indeed.

Reply from the Green Party

I’ve had a reply from Martin Dobson, Culture Spokesperson for the Green Party. Apparently the Green Party, while having many activists involved in library campaigns, don’t have an official policy on libraries. What surprised me though was Martin’s openness about the issue, which I found both refreshing and a very human response. Certainly in contrast to the the avoidance tactics of Labour’s Chris Bryant and the obfuscation or downright misrepresentation of the Conservatives.

Perhaps the one area that I would question is point one. While local decision making is admirable, where there’s a clear dereliction of duty by the local council, Lincolnshire being a case in point, I believe it’s the Minister’s duty under the 1964 Act to intervene to protect local services. Unfortunately, the current incumbent Ed Vaizey has been rather remiss in this area for ideological reasons and the Tories avowed intent to reduce public services.

I have included the 3 questions that I asked Martin to give context to his reply:

Questions

1. Should local authorities be allowed to decide on the future of libraries in their own areas without intervention from the Minister for Culture or should the Minister intervene to protect library provision?

2. Many councils have blamed the decrease in central government funding as the reason for no longer being able to afford to run libraries. What would the Green Party do to protect funding specifically for libraries?

3. Do you believe that libraries should be run by community groups/volunteers even if that means replacing paid staff? If not, what would Green Party do specifically to prevent this.

Reply

Dear Leon,

I am glad that you have contacted us in the Green Party because many Green Party activists are involved in campaigns to save their local libraries. Having said that, I have looked and found that we do not have a lot of very specific policy around the management of libraries in our ‘Policies for a Sustainable Society’ – which are our long term policy aspirations.

So I am going to answer your questions based on my knowledge of the work of local councillors and our philosophical basis.

1. The Green Party believes that nothing should be decided at a higher level if it can be decided at a lower one. We therefore would prefer that decisions about local libraries be taken locally within each local authority rather than at the level of Minister for Culture.

2. The Green Party would straight away inject a substantial amount of money into local authorities so that they could restore local services. The amounts will be announced when we launch our fully costed manifesto hopefully later this month. I would expect that local authorities would use this money to restore libraries to the professionally run services that people have enjoyed for so long.

3. This is a very interesting question and we do not have any specific policy to answer it fully. However I know many Green Party members who believe, like me, that libraries should be run and managed by professionally trained and adequately remunerated librarians.

Your email has highlighted for me what little we have in our policies around our vision for libraries, which contrasts with the passion that many Green Party members feel about saving their local library service. As soon as this election is over I will, in my role of Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport start the process of thinking through a vision for libraries within a sustainable society. I am sure many people within the party will want to contribute to the discussions, but if you our your colleagues have any suggestions I would be grateful for your ideas.

I should explain that, unlike other parties, our policy is wholly made by the members at our twice yearly national conferences. It isn’t a short process, and often there isn’t enough time to discuss good ideas. However I am sure that there would be a lot of support to get this subject on the agenda sooner rather than later.

I hope that this answers your questions sufficiently for now. Hopefully we can give a better answer sometime soon.

With all best wishes,

Martin Dobson
Green Party Spokesperson on Culture, Media and Sports
and Parliamentary Candidate for Liverpool Riverside

 

 

 

Libraries: an anachronism?

I was following a twitter conversation about the potential changes to Bristol Libraries and campaigners were angry with a piece in the Bristol Post  saying libraries are an anachronism. It’s not the first time that this ill-informed view has been aired and unfortunately it won’t be the last. Sometimes it’s from genuine ignorance of what libraries are and do and sometimes it’s an opposing ideological or political viewpoint to what libraries represent.

Rather than using facts, figures and stats (although they can be a useful weapon in the armoury of our arguments) my reply was one based on the principles that libraries are emblematic of. An acknowledgement that in the narrow neoliberal, consumerist society that many politicians and corporate interests are trying to enforce on us, libraries can indeed be seen as an anachronism, but one that represents the best of civic mindedness, and of which we should be proud and treasure.

publiclibrary

Libraries are an anachronism, a wonderful, beautiful anachronism: a free space, with access to unrestricted thoughts and ideas, in a world of narrow minded gain and bottom line economics.

They create communities and build society in the face of selfish individualism. They promote tolerance and openness in the face of bigotry and hatred.

They educate, inform and entertain, all for free, at a time when the powers that be wish us all to be good little consumers, vacuous and unquestioning.

They are a symbol of a public service for the common good when the authorities want sell our public services to the highest bidder for private gain.

They are an anachronism in the eyes of an elite that want to dis-empower us, keep us down and ill-informed.

A philosophical anachronism from a different era when radicals and visionaries understood you created a more just and equal society by lifting, not demonising, the poor and vulnerable sections of society. 

Libraries were and continue to be an essential part of the journey towards social equality.

Libraries are everything that neoliberalism and its acolytes undervalue and scorn and so should be everything that we love, cherish and fight to preserve.

Support Libraries, support public services

Libraries are a public service and as such are very much part of the political arena. Politicians have found to their chagrin that members of the public are proactive in defending libraries and campaigning to prevent closures. From Moray in Scotland, Devon in South West England, and Rhydyfelin in Wales, the message is the same, ‘hands off our libraries’. In both rural and urban areas people fight passionately to save a service they value even when local councilors and national politicians don’t. Sometimes the campaigns are able to influence the outcome initially or, as in Lincolnshire and Sheffield, sometimes not. However, the fight goes on.

But the damage being done to libraries is only part of the undermining of the whole public sector by mainstream parties yoked to an ideology of unrestricted markets and neoliberal values. As such, the fight for libraries should be seen as part of a wider struggle to protect public services. As the We Own it site states ‘public services for people not profit’.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of public disillusionment many have turned away from the hegemony of extreme centre politics to smaller parties such as the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Equally new pressure groups articulate a different vision of political engagement and offer a campaigning voice on behalf of a public distrustful of the link between politicians and big business.

Individuals concerned with upholding the public service ethos and preventing the commercialisation of valuable public services such as the NHS are finding different ways, mostly through social media and the internet, to debate, challenge, and engage. Sometimes they take more direct action such as the Occupy movement. The one thing they all have in common is seeking a fairer, more equitable, society than the one we have now. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen.

Public services are under attack as never before and it’s up to us as users and public sector workers to defend them. So support libraries, support public services, support the common good.

 

Labour and libraries: the shape of things to come

It’s official, the Shadow Culture Minister has confirmed that not only does he prefer a non-interventionist approach, that Labour will not legislate to protect public libraries, but volunteer libraries are also acceptable. In the interview Chris Bryant accuses the Government of a “dereliction of duty” but then states that he will do exactly the same.

So a hands-off, localism-centred, volunteer approach to libraries is the wrong path for the current government to pursue but if elected Mr Bryant will do precisely that. Only in politics would you get away with such blatant double-speak and expect the public to believe it! It’s a sad indication that some communities are so desperate to save their libraries that they do.

In response to a question. Mr Bryant said: “The last thing I think they want now is some know-it-all in Westminster telling everyone everywhere how to run local services”. Which seems a strong indication that, just like the current incumbent, Ed Vaizey, he will not intervene when local councils decide to decimate their library service.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise as it’s been pointed out that Chris Bryant refused to support campaigners in his own constituency when they fought successfully to save Rhydyfelin library from closure. As usual, while happy to criticise conservative library cuts Chris Bryant remains steadfastly silent when Labour councils do exactly the same.

What’s becoming apparent is that the Shadow Minister will not be drawn into a meaningful discussion about libraries. Many, including Voices for the Library, have tried but with no success. It seems nothing makes him go silent faster than being asked an opinion on libraries and he’s more comfortable pontificating inanely in the press than talking to those who genuinely know about the sector.

Many have an high expectation of Labour rolling back the devastating damages done to libraries. In the interview Chris Bryant gives lie to this hope. If elected it looks like it will be business as usual and rather than rescuing libraries it appears that what we get instead is an Ed Vaizey mark II; a swapping of tweedledum for tweedledee with only the colour of the political logo changed.

 

A reply from Labour…sort of!

If you haven’t yet seen it Cilip has received a reply from the Conservatives as part of the Election Watch Campaign. As expected it is the usual political fluff, managing to fill space without actually saying anything of substance. A sort of fifty shades of vanilla, which describes most of mainstream politics at the moment!

Part of the problem is that the campaign letter itself is fairly bland and non-specific, inviting a insipid response in return, which is precisely what’s happened. As a reply it is too inane to even bother critiquing and merely proves the point that politicians don’t communicate to elucidate, merely to make themselves or the party look good.

Anyway, I prefer to let the coalition’s atrocious record on libraries and public services for the past five years stand for itself.

So far there doesn’t appear to have been any replies from the other political parties but obviously, the most anticipated will be from Labour (did anything ever come of the consultation carried out by Helen Goodman?) and I hope Cilip has better luck than myself in receiving a reply. Despite three emails to Chris Bryant and a Twitter exchange he still hasn’t bothered responding.

That said, he might just be killing time until Labour is elected and hoping for a more exciting portfolio and thus libraries are so far down on his list of interests that it’s not worth formulating an informed response.

Leaving silent Bryant aside, I did have slightly more luck when contacting Labour via the House of Lords and received a response from Lord Collins, whose reply is below including his speech re: Abolition of the Library Advisory Council for England.

While I appreciate that Lord Collins at least answered, and that Labour appears to at least acknowledge the difficult situation libraries face, unlike Ed ‘crisis, what crisis?’ Vaizey, this has not translated into any clear statement or commitment from Labour regarding library provision. And like the Conservatives the reply manages to say a lot without actually answering the questions asked.

So far, it appears that Labour’s policy on libraries is to not actually say what their policy is, but then again, perhaps they just don’t have one!

_______________________________________________

Dear Leon,
Apologies for not getting back to you sooner, however I wanted to provide you with details (below) of the press release Chris Bryant put out put out last week setting out current policy on Libraries. I have also set out below a local story about the visit Chris did on the subject.
I am also attaching for your information a recent speech I made in Grand Committee of the House of Lords on Libraries.
Hope this assists.
Best wishes,
Ray
Lord Collins of Highbury
40 million fewer visitors to libraries under Cameron
New House of Commons Library research shows library closures have accelerated rapidly since David Cameron’s Tory led Government came to office.
  • There are now at least 330 fewer libraries open for 10 hours or more a week – an 8 per cent drop.
  • The number of visits has declined rapidly since 2010. In 2009/10 there were 322 million visits, but by 2013/14 visits had fallen to 282 million – a 12 per cent drop.
  • The percentage of people visiting libraries in the most deprived areas, which rely on public libraries the most, has fallen since 2010 from 46.2 per cent of people to 36.8 per cent. That is a 21 per cent drop.
  • Since last April a further 216 static libraries and eight mobile libraries have been put under threat of closure or passing to volunteers.
The research was commissioned as the Government is failing to keep records on how many libraries have been closed or handed over to voluntary organisations. And despite their statutory duty under the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”, Tory ministers have not provided any national leadership.
The next Labour government will ensure a Culture Minister will chair the “task and finish group”, set up following the Sieghart review into libraries in order to provide leadership to the sector. It will also work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead, deliver savings and meet local needs.
Chris Bryant MP, Labour’s Shadow Arts Minister said:
 
“Under David Cameron, successive Tory Secretaries of State – Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller and Sajid Javid – have utterly failed library-users.
“Libraries are a vital part of the social and cultural life of this country.  They extend opportunities for people, whatever their background, to read, learn and explore and they help bridge the widening inequality gap in the country.
“That is why a Labour government will provide genuine national leadership, encourage greater collaboration in local government, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead, deliver savings and meet local needs.”
ENDS
Notes to editors:
1.      These graphs were produced by the House of Commons Library, based on figures from CIPFA and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part Survey.
2.      Library closures have accelerated rapidly since 2010 – there are now at least 330 fewer libraries open for 10 hours or more a week.  That is an 8 per cent fall.
3.      The number of visits has declined rapidly since 2010. In 2009/10 there were 322 million visits, but by 2013/14 visits had fallen to 282 million.  That is a 12% drop.
4.      This has happened in every region in the country.
5.      Especially worrying is the decline in visits by young people – we are losing the next generation of readers and learners.
6.      The percentage of people visiting libraries in the most deprived areas, which rely on public libraries the most, has fallen since 2010 from 46.2% of people to 36.8%. That is a 21% drop.
7.      Since last April: 216 static libraries have been put under threat of closure/passing to volunteers. Eight mobile libraries under threat. One new library opened. 3 refurbishments over £50,000, 11 libraries (three static and eight mobile) libraries closed, nine libraries passed to volunteers, one entirely new volunteer-run library. This is according to Public Libraries News.
Christopher Bryant says the Government needs to do more to maintain libraries By Lincolnshire Echo  |  Posted: February 05, 2015
MP Christopher Bryant visited Lincoln to discuss the current state of libraries across the county
Labour MP Christopher Bryant has called on the Government to take more “responsibility” in maintaining libraries across the county.
The shadow minister for the arts’ visit to Lincoln Central Library came after Lincolnshire County Council announced plans to hand over 30 libraries to volunteers, following a consultation that cost more than £720,000.
The idea was first mooted in 2012, with more than 20,000 signatures opposing the plans. The subsequent ruling by the High Court criticised the way in which the council reached the decision, however a second consultation has reached the same verdict.
Mr Bryant believes the importance of the library cannot be overestimated.
He said: “I think libraries for so many people are their best way of getting on in life. It is part of our social fabric. The most distressing thing is the visits in the most deprived areas have declined.
“The big solution is government cannot wash its hands. It has got to take some responsibility, it has to assess what is happening in the country. It is a bit depressing that 60 per cent of libraries in the country do not have Wi-Fi.
“I know Karl (McCartney) and I have never heard him say a word about the library in his constituents. Maybe he never uses the library?
“I think if Lucy (Rigby) is in parliament she will make an enormous difference. She is one of the best candidates we have got. The leadership of the Labour Party would listen to Lucy,” he added.
_____________________________
Speech

Public Bodies (Abolition of the Library Advisory Council for England) Order 2014

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab):

My Lords, I echo my noble friend’s remarks about the current crisis libraries are facing. They are not a luxury but a practical tool and provide vital public space for individuals and families across the country. They are a resource for parents and young children, schoolchildren who do not have a place to work at home, jobseekers who are trying to gain new skills and employment, elderly people living in isolation and community groups. Increasingly, they are incubators for new ideas and places where businesses come to fruition.

Personally, I regret that over the past four and a half years the Government have been slow to respond to the growing crisis in the sector. At a time when many library services were under threat there was no sense of urgency, coherent strategy, direction or guidance for local authorities, and no idea about what might be the minimum acceptable outcome. Libraries are provided at local level, and councils, rightly, have the first claim on leadership, but the Government have a clear duty to minimise the damage done to the library service and to provide an overarching strategic vision.

I feel a little as though I am in a “Monty Python” sketch. We are considering the case for a body in this debate on its proposed abolition, but the Ministers have told us that essentially the ACL is a defunct body, with no staff, premises, assets or liabilities. In other words, it is a dead parrot.

I, too, welcome the Independent Library Report for England, published just before Christmas. However, as Ed Vaizey, the Minister, tells us, it,

“did not include consideration of the statutory requirement of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964”,

and,

“makes no reference to the ACL”.

I admit that I find it difficult to follow the argument that since the ILR did not consider the statutory requirement of the statutory Act or the ACL, its abolition is not dependent on the report’s publication, yet one of its primary recommendations now apparently negates the need for the ACL. As the Delegated Powers Committee suggested, the considerations of the ILR clearly intersect with the practical implementation of the duties placed upon the Secretary of State and local authorities by the 1964 Act, and it is therefore reasonable to see the outcome of the ILR as relevant to the decision on the ACL. I am sorry for all these abbreviations—they will get worse when we get to the recommendations.

Clearly, my party believes that there is a good case for a body to support development, innovation and best practice, including measures to find efficiency savings and increase impact, helping to lessen the pressure for cuts to services. That is why we welcome the conclusion of the review to establish the libraries’ task and finish group. I rather like that name. Gone are the days of a good old task force; it is now “task and finish”. Maybe that is where some of my concerns are.

Cross-party and organisational working must be at the heart of its activities. The Department for Education, the Department of Health, DCMS, BIS and the Department for Communities and Local Government, all have a role to play, as have organisations such as the British Library, Booktrust, the Reader Organisation, the National Literacy Trust, Arts Council England—as we heard from the Minister—the CILIP and the Reading Agency.

Mr Vaizey’s case for the task and finish group is that its functions are far wider than the sole advisory function of the ACL—as we heard from the Minister in her introduction—and, as he says, more importantly, it will also be focused on delivery. Unlike the ACL, the membership of the task and finish group will be flexible and dynamic, so that it can adapt to suit the specific tasks involved. The TFG will report jointly to Ministers and the Local Government Association and will be independent of government.

When, in October 2011, the Arts Council took over responsibility for supporting and developing libraries from the former Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it did not take on the MLA’s supervisory role for libraries—again, a point raised by my noble friend. At a time when libraries are withering on the vine in many communities, oversight is even more critical than at any time before. The point the noble Earl made was absolutely right. I agree with the view that the recommended role and structure of the task and finish group are not suitable for the ACL, whose primary aim and minimum membership is prescribed by statute. However, I do not necessarily accept that the establishment of the TFG and its range of functions negate the need for statutory independent advice in the Secretary of State’s meeting his obligations under the 1964 Act. I fear that in performing its job, working with a range of authorities, it will miss that fundamental requirement that we must have a library service. And what is that library service? It is certainly not a second-hand bookshop in a local high street. It is more than that, and we need to be very careful about the standards that we set.

Mr Vaizey’s view is that, as we have heard from the Minister today, advice and guidance from stakeholders and officials at the DCMS are sufficient to meet the function of providing advice to the Secretary of State, including on the use of his statutory powers. I am not sure that the fact that nobody has taken action is necessarily evidence that there is no need for action. Clearly, with the number of library closures increasing and access to libraries diminishing, that is not the case at the moment.

Although DCMS has stated that no budget is allocated to the ACL—I think that its abolition will save approximately £2,500 a year; this is obviously not a budget consideration—I ask the Minister whether, during the period of the ACL’s inaction, any external advice to the Secretary of State has been brought into the department and, if so, what the cost of that advice was