How High?

Although hardly surprising the statement from the SCL refusing to support the My Library By Right campaign is nevertheless galling to say the least. In fact the statement is incredibly disappointing to those wanting the SCL to show more leadership over library cuts:

“As the leaders and managers of library services across the country, the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) is committed to delivering library services which have real impact on local communities.

We developed the Universal Offers for Public Libraries – with partners like The Reading Agency – to enable the continued development of strong unifying core services, reflective of what people want from their library.

As a body largely comprising representation from local authorities, SCL recognises that it is for individuals and their local authorities to provide local responses to the My Library By Right campaign.

For its part, SCL continues its work on an ambitious programme of innovation to further develop and embed the Universal Offers; supporting our workforce to deliver vibrant library services; building national and local partnerships that enable library services to contribute to relevant policy agenda, particularly those around economic development and health and wellbeing and contributing to the evolution of the Libraries Taskforce.

SCL welcomes the opportunity to grow its relationship with CILIP, recognising the potential benefits for communities in working together to develop sustainable library services, delivered by an engaged and well supported library workforce.”

What this statement ignores is that as a body the SCL makes agreements and builds partnerships without expecting members to respond as individuals. So why should this issue be any different?

SCL have often claimed that as an apolitical organisation they have to remain neutral. Perhaps there are some who take such words at face value. However, despite such protestations, it’s difficult to see how they differ from the vision set out for libraries by the government and by extension the LGA, ACE and Libraries Taskforce: volunteer libraries, community hubs, trusts (which I support), and commercial partnerships (despite the quite dubious ethics of companies like Barclays), are all part and parcel of the SCL approach. What appears to be lacking, is any challenge by the SCL as to whether this is the right path for public libraries, rather than just following the political diktak of the day.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find out how the SCL operates. Their Twitter account states that it is a local government association made up of the senior librarian of each library authority. So it’s obvious where SCL’s inclinations lie. It appears the LGA says jump, the SCL asks ‘how high?’.

The claim to be apolitical would be more believable if it wasn’t for the fact that their actions support a pro-government agenda.

Ian Anstice has observed that the SCL amounts to a voluntary organisation of hundreds of equal members. Unfortunately, it seems that some are more equal than others with the Executive Committee apparently making all the decisions, without the need to refer back to the regions or individual members. By that I mean the decision not to support MLBR was taken by the Executive only. Surely such an important decision should have at least been referred back to members, even by a quick email vote.

Despite claiming to represent the views of members SCL has few aspects of a membership organisation. Yes the committee officers are elected but other than that it has no constitution, process for joining (other than being HoS), individual membership fees, or mechanisms whereby members are genuinely consulted and decisions made by consensus. It appears members are not able to put forward motions or to make binding policy.

The details of the annual conference are very low key, without any details on the SCL website. In fact members are only notified by email. Such lack of openness is totally at odds with the transparency of Cilip conferences and groups such as Speak Up for Libraries. Perhaps, this is done to stay under the radar of campaigners or because the programme reveals how integrated with the status quo the SCL is.

It appears the SCL is far from apolitical but is very much part of the establishment. No doubt this year Ed Vaizey, will be an honoured guest yet again! With SCL committee members clamouring to share a photo-opportunity with the minister.

An interesting item is that the Taskforce will be seeking feedback on its proposed ‘Ambition for Libraries’. It will be interesting to see the outline of such ambition. Whether or not it will be a genuine analysis of the current library crisis with robust solutions remains to be seen. Unfortunately, I suspect it will merely be a continuation of current government policy given dubious respectability by carrying SCL approval.

If you want more details of the conference don’t go to the SCL website as there aren’t any there! Although, if enough people ask they might just publish something.

While it must be recognised that the SCL does carry out some important work in the sector, the Universal Offers being a case in point, this in no way compensates for the damage done to the profession by their continuing support for policies designed to fragment and debase the public library network and devalue the work of paid staff.

They might be the ‘leaders’ of public libraries in a technical sense as individual HoS but as a body the SCL lacks the legitimacy to claim to represent the aspirations of the wider profession and workforce.




  1. I have the shame frustrations with the SCL (And the LGA) as you, what is more galling for me as a user is their claim to “advocates for continuous improvement of the public library service on behalf of local people.” Which is clearly nonsense. For them to promote banking staff to come in and do the job of the staff they’re supposed to be leading who have been sacked and replaced by volunteers must be particularly annoying for library staff watching their antics.


  2. I have just posted this response on Lis Pub Libs. I could have said much more as I am so angry about their posturing and protecting themselves , while the services they are paid well to deliver are falling apart!! Further more redundancies of loyal staff are happening.

    Comment posted on Lis Pub Libs:-

    Is it not time that the SCL showed leadership and had the courage to put its head above the parapet?

    The media reports a continuous stream of depressing stories about councils threatening to close yet more libraries and cuts in opening hours, staffing and book stocks.
    This is in addition to the considerable cuts already made over the past five years. At what point will the SCL executive decide that the damage being imposed on a statutory service, which they are paid to manage, has gone too far. At what point will they have the courage to tell the Secretary of State that he must intervene?

    There is little point to the SCL going on endlessly about its ‘universal offers’ if the service itself is being destroyed in many authorities and usage and borrowing continue to decline at an alarming rate.

    The SCL should be joining forces with CILIP. the Society of Authors and campaign and friends groups to ensure that we retain a comprehensive and efficient service as required by the 1964 Act.

    The SCL should also be joining with CILIP and campaigners to pressurise the Libraries Taskforce to face up to the immediate and longer term challenges, to define a clear vision for a modern library service and put in place an action plan to make it happen. In short it should be focusing on the substantive issues to the benefit of the millions of people who rely upon public libraries.

    The SCL may be just an association of chief librarians but that does not stop it being allowed to express forcefully and publicly its concerns, as has been demonstrated by numerous other bodies from the Law Society and the Council of Chief Police Officers to the BMA. It just needs someone with the courage to make a stand.

    If the SCL decides that it can do nothing then it should withdraw and perhaps simply become a social club for chief librarians.


    1. I totally share your and Ruby’s (comments below) frustration. The SCL have become nothing more than apologists for govt policy. We need an alternative body for senior librarians that are not beholden to the LGA or other government body, and which is open and democratic.


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