Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.

 

 

 

 

My Way

So it’s finally happened. Ed Vaizey, the longest serving Minister for Culture has finally left the building, or at least been asked to leave as part of the new Cabinet reshuffle. It would be unfair to blame Vaizey for the all the problems of the public library sector over the last six years. The overriding factor has been one of ideology; from austerity, to localism, to devolution. But the ex-minister was certainly a strong advocate for these policies and ensured that libraries became a poster-boy for DIY community services.

It would also be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of just Tory local authorities. Councillors of all hues have been keen to support and adopt both localism and devolution, sometimes as a pragmatic solution to budget cuts, but equally as a means of distributing power from central government. And Let’s not forget that Labour and LibDem councils have been just as quick to reduce library services and hand over to volunteers as their conservative counterparts. Equally, it could be argued that the profession had grown complacent with comfortable funding and cosy political links so was ill-prepared to respond to the severity of the public spending cuts agenda.

So how should we judge Ed Vaizey’s time in office? Certainly the SCL appears to have regarded him as a positive force for championing libraries as the following tweet shows:

I have to say my own view is not so charitable. This was a minister who refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever, and who despite having the resources of the DCMS at his disposal preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures. The government figure touted was totally at odds with both CIPFA, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. Incompetence or deliberate spin? Take your pick.

According to the BBC the last six years have seen:

  • 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services, while 207 were based in buildings (and there were four others, such as home delivery services)
  • The number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 buildings shut
  • The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now, a drop of 7,933 (25%) for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data
  • A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run. In some areas, such as Lincolnshire and Surrey, the move has led to legal challenges and protests from residents.

The BBC also estimated that a further 111 closures were planned, but since the research was published, I suspect the number is now far higher. This is alongside a funding reduction of £180 million since 2010.

Matt Hancock has replaced Ed Vaizey so it remains to be seen what stance he will take particularly in the light of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. Will he continue a non-interventionist approach or actually engage to slow down the rate of attrition?

Anyway, I shall end with a personal tribute to Ed (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes!)

(Click to enlarge)

Ed Vaizey