Last year I looked at the possible trends in public libraries for 2017 and unfortunately the challenges I identified remain unabated. The situation has deteriorated even more so and the release of the recent Cipfa data details a sector in continuing crisis. What has remained a constant since the start of austerity is deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and hundreds of library closures. Conversely, there has been an increase volunteer led-libraries, co-location, and technology enabled access.
There is no evidence that this trajectory is likely to change under the current administration and all indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network in England over the coming year.
However, it would be unfair to imply that nothing good is happening within libraries. Library staff have managed to drive forward creative projects and service improvement despite the challenging circumstances. For the best examples of this see the Libraries Change Lives website. Equally, new library builds and improvements are still happening and welcomed by the communities they benefit. Public Library News provides the most comprehensive and regular updates from across the sector including a list of new or refurbished libraries. The Libraries Taskforce blog also highlights good work happening and best practice from other services. Unfortunately as a government funded body, the bias is for highlighting only positive stories rather than acknowledging the difficulties that beset the sector, and as such it lacks both impartiality or gives balanced coverage.
While not entirely doom and gloom the positives above need to be set in the overall context of ongoing funding cuts to local authorities and the continuing drivers of localism and devolution. All of which continue to provide a challenging environment for libraries. Not just public libraries but all those that rely on public funding either directly or indirectly such as schools, FE, HE, and health libraries.
Libraries are increasingly being challenged to adopt a more commercial approach in the way they market and charge for services. In principle this is nothing new and fees and charges have always played a role in raising income; from fines, room hire, photocopying, DVD rental etc.
What has changed is the emphasis placed on income generation as central to the core budget. That is, a failure to meet an income target can have a direct impact on service delivery with the need for further efficiency savings such as reducing the stock fund or even losing staff as a result. This is particularly true of library mutuals I would guess who no longer have the safety net of the local authority to soak up any overspends.
It also highlights the dichotomy as to why library services can attract large amounts of project funding from the Arts Council but still be subject to cuts and closures. Such funding is tied to a specific project work and does nothing to alleviate the underlying structural issues such as revenue funding.
While many in the profession object to libraries being treated as profit making organisations the approach is in keeping with government policy and ideology so is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.
Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation of the sector have made public libraries an unattractive proposition for new library graduates. An article in the bookseller described the relentless cuts as turning the sector into a ‘war zone’. The sad fact is public libraries are no longer an appealing long-term career prospect.
Speaking at a round table discussion with the APPG on libraries Nick Poole argued that despite the difficulties the sector needed to invest and encourage new talent. Looking at the information sector in the round I would agree. Many opportunities exist and will continue to expand, particularly in the areas of information and knowledge management, specialist libraries, and Higher Education.
However, it’s more difficult to argue a case for public libraries, when both national and local government, and all main political parties regard library staff, including qualified librarians, as replaceable by volunteers.
The recommendation by William Sieghart to ‘encourage and develop the library workforce and especially new recruits and graduates’ seems unachievable now. The ambition to develop a programme similar to the TeachFirst concept for librarians appears to have been dropped by the Taskforce in favour of the more achievable goal of encouraging apprenticeships, although this too is not without its difficulties.
Pay in the public sector will continue to be depressed with either a real term pay cut or wages struggling to keep pace with inflation, also make public libraries less attractive to those entering the profession.
Despite this some councillors seem to enjoy increases or pay outs far in excess of those they expect of their workforce. While no means an isolated case the leader of East Sussex Council is to get a 37% increase in his allowance and proudly states that he is “worth the money and more”. It appears you can volunteer and still be paid the equivalent of a full time wage for doing so!
This from a council leader who is threatening to close libraries unless they are funded wholly by communities or other organisations. Presumably, any volunteers taking over the threatened libraries cannot expect the same level of recompense as Councillor Glazier.
Not to be outdone Paul Blantern former CEO of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce enjoyed a pay out in excess of £100k when he quit his post this year. This at the same time 21 libraries were threatened with closure as the council can apparently no longer afford to run them.
I won’t dwell too much on the recent Cipfa figures as a very good in-depth analysis has been provide by Tim Coates on UK Library News.
The figures sadly illustrate the continuing decline of the sector, with the Bookseller describing the results as showing the “catastrophic” scale of library closures in Great Britain. Overall the figures confirm huge drops in funding, increase in library closures – 449 since 2012 but other commentators have put this higher – a drop in expenditure by £66m for 2016-7 alone, and a decline in visitor numbers 14% over five years.
However, not all councils have returned their figures so the situation is likely to be much worse.
That the situation requires urgent strategic action on a national scale is obvious. What is not obvious is where this action will come from. All the major players, ACE, DCMS, Libraries Taskforce, have so far fundamentally failed to address or halt the decline.
Part of the issue is also the loss of focus on what public libraries are for and what they should deliver. Some of the underlying problems are due to technological and societal changes, but these effects have been exacerbated by political ideology around public finances and service delivery.
The SCL Universal Offers where partly meant to address this by formalising those areas that libraries where good at and how they could adapt to meet the changing information needs of the public. Despite being a continuing critic of the SCL as a organisation I have always been broadly supportive of the universal offers. However, after years of failing to alter the decline in usage we need now to start questioning the validity of the offers as an effective strategy.
While this might be heresy to some, and I certainly don’t advocate for immediately discontinuing them, I do believe the themes need revisiting to gauge if they continue to be fit for purpose in their current form. Equally, adding to the number of offers is both counter-productive and misguided.
There still remains a lack of strategic leadership for the sector within England. Obviously, the government would not accept a body highly critical of it’s policies, which is why the make-up of the Taskforce is as it is. The majority of those round the table are beholden to the government either politically or financially.
That’s not to say that some of the organisations don’t carry out valuable work beneficial to the sector, such as the British Library. However, in 2016/17 79% (£93.9m) of the British Library funding came from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Equally, the SCL has benefited from closer engagement and have been successful in attracting additional money. This year it was awarded £2m over four years by the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’, allowing it to pay up to £65k for a new Chief Executive. Equally, six library services were also awarded National Portfolio Organisation status attracting just over £4m in funding between them. As Ian Anstice observed:
“It’s interesting to see that 3 out of the 6 library services to get the funding, by the way, are non-profit trusts. This is proportionately way higher than one would expect. The bids were also not public so it’s unclear, apart from what can be gained from press releases, as yet, as to what they will mean.”
So it’s no surprise that the SCL is heavily involved in promoting a cultural and arts agenda for libraries and advocating support for volunteer led libraries, both mainstays of government policy. As the latest minutes of the Taskforce noted:
“The Taskforce also undertook to provide support to community managed libraries to share good practice, and help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches. It is working in partnership with SCL and Locality to support a new Community Managed Libraries Peer Network…”
What was encouraging for those of us critical of the arts path being foisted on libraries with no debate was the Cilip interview with Gill Furniss, Chair of the APPG:
‘I am a bit disappointed. I did think public libraries fitted better in Civil Society. To me they are community assets and don’t go terribly well with arts, museums and culture. I see public libraries serving communities’ information needs and that they should be very much placed within a community and be valued by the community.’
She also believes the arts label comes at a cost. ‘It makes libraries seem very grand when you’re talking about arts and museums. We’ve got to get away from grand. We’ve got to be there with our sleeves rolled up in communities. I’d put it with housing and neighbourhoods.’
Whether Labour adopts this approach remains to be seen. Kevin Brennan, shadow library minister, is currently working on library policy but over the past seven years most Labour controlled authorities, including Gill Furniss’ home area of Sheffield, have followed their tory counter-parts in cuts, closures, and the replacement of paid staff with volunteers.
As such there is no independent body, with perhaps the exception of Cilip, that is willing to be publicly critical of government policy. Although a recent APPG round-table discussion in Westminster produced some heart-felt warnings there appears little political appetite to change course from any of the parties.
The APPG has yet to publish it’s list of activities so it’s difficult to know yet what it’s priorities will be and how it will bring together different political opinion into a coherent strategy. The LibDems are as equally to blame as the tories for the current crisis and despite both the Chair and Vice-Chair being Labour, as noted above Labour have a poor record on differentiating their stance in any meaningful way from that of the Conservatives.
What is needed is a clear and meaningful strategy that addresses the structural and financial difficulties besetting the sector, and a strategy that is intent on building relationships with all stakeholders rather than creating division.
Unfortunately, Sieghart’s recommendations deliberately set to exclude campaigners, unions, and library users from the Taskforce. Given the emphasis on communities having a say it’s rather ironic that the users voice was intentionally left out at national level.
Sadly, the perhaps unintended but very foreseeable consequence has been to create a toxic relationship of distrust, accusation and counter accusation between groups that should be united in fighting for libraries.
Besides being politically petty the decision has built walls rather than bridges and bodes ill for the future should a new administration establish a different body. It would be very difficult for those currently at the table to cry foul if they were to be excluded.
It also raises the question of legitimate engagement and how far library organisations should allow themselves to be part of policies that are so at odds with the good of the profession and sector. Within any situation there is always nuance and complexity. Very few issues are black and white. That said, it is difficult to pinpoint any advantages to public libraries that engagement with the government has brought.
The campaigns run by Cilip in support of public, school, and health libraries, the outspoken criticism from authors and celebrities, all highlight the damage being done. So the question becomes at what point does engagement become collusion or self-harm? At what point are organisations putting their own needs above the good of the wider profession?
As Nick Poole recently tweeted as part of a thread: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
For myself, I see another challenging year of quiet desperation for public libraries with no obvious solution in sight. The government is too caught up in Brexit to give domestic issues much consideration. That’s not to be overly pessimistic but the evidence leads only one way and as we have all affirmed in the past year #factsmatter. To pretend otherwise is a dis-service to the profession.