It’s a new year but the same old battle continues. The battle that started five years ago and the coalition government’s introduction of the austerity agenda. Less public services and less libraries. However, the initial rush to closure quickly ran into trouble and the government was genuinely surprised at the strength of opposition, particularly those politicians who couldn’t see out of their rose tinted digital glasses: everything was available online and digital was the future. Whereas libraries were an anachronism, old fashioned, had had their day? Except they hadn’t and plenty of people were on hand to point that out. With placards, demonstrations and judicial reviews if necessary.
The Government and councils were quick to get the message and unfortunately closures quickly morphed into two more insidious strands that hid the true picture from the wider public: hollowing out and volunteer led. Both approaches causing just as much damage to the national public library sector but far more difficult to challenge and fight. Libraries, more than any other service, became the poster child for the Big Society.
In the early days many within the profession saw a opportunity to modernise the service, make it more flexible, more entrepreneurial, with more public engagement. After all weren’t we here to serve our communities? So greater involvement could only be a good thing. Public services, including libraries, had become too directive: doing onto communities rather than working with them. Thus, the inclination to change and involve communities was genuine.
Unfortunately, very few could imagine the scale of change to come, could envisage that by 2020 the core grant from government would no longer exist. This is all part of the governments push to greater regional devolution, with alleged spending powers to match. Some bodies, such as CIPFA and LGA, have welcomed greater financial autonomy for regions seeing it as a way of decentralising control from Westminster. This is to be a brave new world of local self-determination.
Despite the claim that retention of local taxes and business rates will support local services, in practice there are still huge gaps in funding. This has led to many councils becoming commissioning bodies, rather than directly delivering services, in order to survive financially. Nevertheless, this is raising some serious questions regarding the lack of legal protection contracting out gives to service users. It also means that universal and some statutory services, such as libraries, losing out badly.
The professional bodies were slow to act to the rate of change. Both Cilip and the SCL have to accept responsibility for wanting to continue with a more conciliatory and collaborative approach in the hope of retaining influence despite the very obvious negative impact on the profession.
The abolition of the MLA with oversight being transferred to ACE made matters worse, with libraries being shoehorned into an arts-centric model they were ill-equipped to deliver. Equally, ACE were determined to deliver a prototype of libraries that fitted the government agenda, frequently commissioning Locality to inflate the voluntary sector’s ability to run them.
Both Cilip and SCL continued to drive forward valuable initiatives such as the Universal Offers, growing the Summer Reading Challenge, copyright, digital, and e-lending. These are all important areas that require professional input and partnership working but by ignoring the political consequences of austerity and the impact on the profession such initiatives were merely papering over the schisms and strains appearing in the sector. Between 2009 – 2014 Cilip lost over 4,000 members through job losses and those leaving the body out of sheer frustration with perceived political inactivity.
Something had to give and fortunately with both the appointment of a new CEO and pressure from members Cilip has now taken a more oppositional stance to the government agenda. This has included taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State responsibilities to libraries and the launch of the My Library By Right Campaign. I shall return to the campaign in a future post but encourage every library campaigner, user, paid staff, and Cilip member to get behind the campaign regardless of the slight misgivings some have raised (and for goodness sake sign the bloody petition!).
The SCL continue with a more conservative and conciliatory stance, preferring to work in tandem with the LGA and the Libraries Task Force. This has led to accusations of merely helping to bring about government policy rather than standing up for the best interests of the sector.
The difficulty when discussing the SCL is the sheer opaqueness of how it operates and the lack of any clear decision making mechanisms such as how it seeks feedback and consensus from members over controversial decisions. In fact do members get to actually vote on issues at all? While it appears to derive authority from high level partnership working with the LGA, the Reading Agency, etc. it also appears to lack any democratic processes, and thus lack a mandate, to genuinely claim to speak on behalf of the wider profession.
Campaigners have led the fight against library closures. However, campaigns have been piecemeal and lacking genuine national focus. So the biggest challenge for campaigners is to articulate an alternative narrative but accepting that, while major differences exist, it needs to include an element of compromise with vested groups such as the LGA and taskforce.
If the sector has failed to produce the national strategic leadership required then campaigning groups have also failed to fill the void sufficiently. This is not a criticism but a recognition that opposition in itself is not enough.
What is needed is one body, or campaign group, speaking with one voice, with a vision for libraries and a realistic roadmap of how to achieve it. The individual elements already exist but bringing it together into a unified narrative to challenge the government’s account is for me the single most important issue for 2016.
I started the post by referring to the fight for libraries as a battle but rather than rely on a coercive approach, through funding and ideology, as the government is doing we must instead concentrate on winning hearts and minds across the political spectrum as well as amongst the general public. To do this we need a very clear, positive, and realistic vision for libraries.