It’s something of an understatement to say that the results of the general election were disappointing, not just on a personal level but also for what it means for libraries. It’s difficult not to be despondent over the ramifications, which are outlined by Ian Anstice on Public Library News, with the headlines being:
- Continuing deep cuts to budgets and increasing co-location
- Off-loading more libraries to volunteers or closure
- The removal of paid staff, continuing deprofessionalisation, and increasing anxiety about job security
- Reducing the ability to mount legal challenges and continuing non-intervention by the culture minister
- Continuing reduction of mobile services
This, unfortunately will be the new realism of the next five years and I believe Ian’s analysis will prove to be depressingly accurate. What we will see now is the re-invigoration of Big Society principles, underpinned by Localism, which will transform the whole public library landscape. The Conservatives are ideologically driven by the desire for a smaller state, less direct government intervention, and reduced public services delivered increasingly by third sector, voluntary organisations, and the private sector.
Libraries will continue to be, along with other public services, hostages to such ideology with little in the way to restrain the inevitable outcome and decline. I have no doubt that public libraries will continue to exist in the future but in a form that is radically different to that of 10 or even 5 years ago in terms of delivery and funding. Whether they will remain comprehensive and efficient in their new form will be open to intense debate.
For many campaigners therefore the battle to protect libraries continues but perhaps there needs to be a period of reflection and consolidation in order to formulate, if possible, a unified national strategy to resist the coming changes. I am not directly involved with the Library Campaign, Speak Up For Libraries, or Voices for the Library but it seems to me that these organsiations would be best placed to begin such a conversation.
Unfortunately, campaigns of the past five years have had only limited success. To be more effective in the future library protest needs to evolve and align with different local and national campaigns, over hospitals, education, tax avoidance etc. There is strength in unity but too many campaigns for libraries have acted in isolation. Such insularity will be even less effective in the face of rampant Tory ideology. It’s not just public libraries but all those in the public sector; schools, colleges, university, and NHS libraries that will be under threat.
The People’s Assembly Against Austerity have organised a mass protest in London on June 20th. It would be an empowering gesture if there were a large library contingent there made up of campaigners, organisations – dare I hope for Cilip input – save library groups, staff, and of course library users. Not just speaking up for libraries but shouting out for them.
What has become increasingly obvious is that it’s difficult to campaign for libraries without appreciating what is happening to public services overall. When I first started this blog it was in response to a very narrow debate within Cilip over a name change. It quickly morphed into advocating for libraries and library staff as reductions and closures increased in pace. But against this background was always the hope that the coalition would be ousted and a slow recovery could begin. That hope has been well and truly dashed.
After the election David Cameron announced his aim was “…to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom” under the mantle of ‘One Nation’. Almost immediately we found out what sort of ‘one nation’ he meant with massive welfare cuts, attacks on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, scrapping the human rights act, destroying workers rights, and more damaging austerity measures.
But we are not ‘One Nation’ and many of us do not agree with the vision Cameron offers. This government does not represent the majority. It is the result of an archaic and increasingly undemocratic voting system in which the Conservatives are governing with only 24% of the vote. This is not a mandate.
Thus, the fight for libraries is also the fight for public services and changing the system so that it works for everyone not just an elite. The downside of the election is we have five more years of Tory government, the upside is we have five years to fight for real and lasting change.
What sort of library service will remain in five years is of real concern but sadly only time will tell.