I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff. A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.
However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.
That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.
No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.
However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.
Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.
A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.
Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.
The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.
Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.
However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!
Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.
The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.
Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.
So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.
However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.