The Library Commonwealth

This post is something of a swansong for me (although I know better than to say never again!). But I’ve been writing this blog since October 2013 and now seems the right time to take a step back. On a professional level I no longer work in public libraries and on a personal level my interests and concerns are taking me in a different direction.

That said, I will continue to be active around libraries via social media and can be followed on Twitter @librareon.

So I thought I would end with some general observations and try to encapsulate some of my thoughts from the past five years.

Crisis…what crisis!

Libraries are facing an existential crisis. Not because they are danger of disappearing altogether but rather a crisis of identity; who they are, what they are, what they stand for.

This goes beyond the closures, hollowing-out, deprofessionalisation, and amatuerisation – all critical factors – but these are symptoms rather than the cause. Austerity has been a major driving force behind the changes but again this is not the whole story.

Nor is the lack of strategic leadership within the sector. Although this is without doubt a significant factor especially as the library leadership are enabling government policies in return for organisational funding. The very same policies that are causing the current crisis!

But as always, when you follow the money, you end up in someone’s pocket!

Despite this there is also a deeper malaise and it’s one that as a profession we all have to accept responsibility for. And that is a loss of belief in the profession itself. We have lost our sense of identity and by doing so lost our sense of purpose.

And because we have lost this self–belief we have allowed others to fill the void with short-termism, self-interest, and organisational and technological fads.

We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that libraries are just victims of technological and societal changes. A sector shaken by political and financial whims to which the only pragmatic response is compliance. This is ‘realpolitik’ so grow-up and get with the programme!

Partly through not having a unified voice, partly through fear for jobs and livelihoods, partly because we never believed it would quite get this bad, we acquiesced, we kept our heads down and refused to speak out.

After all, as the Americans say, ‘you can’t fight city hall’. Not when ‘city hall’ is the DCMS, LGA, Libraries Taskforce, Arts Council, and the SCL/LC. Not when they tell us they are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Not when they hold all the political cards, the patronage, the funding.

And the profession, full of doubt, and fear, and a loss of belief in who we are and what we stand for have played right along.

As austerity took hold we fell for that typical neo-liberal con trick: ‘things can only get better in the long run by becoming worse in the short-term.’ Deal with it!

We slashed budgets, reduced staff, bought less and less stock, closed libraries, recruited volunteers, merged services, co-located, changed job roles (from dedicated, knowledgeable library staff to Jack and Jill of all trades), re-organised, restructured…and when that didn’t work we did it all again…repeatedly!

The small state ideology has become the accepted dogma within libraries. We have adopted the language of commercialism, become entrepreneurs, instigated corporate practices, and explored alternative delivery models. But guess what, things haven’t got better, they’ve got worse and continue to get worse with each passing year.

In February this year the Institute for Government published 10 key facts about neighbourhood services. It revealed how badly councils services have been hit with libraries facing amongst the worse reductions. Highlights included:

  • Since 2009/10, libraries have borne real-terms day-to-day spending cuts of 41%.
  • Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the number of full-time equivalent library staff declined by 38%.
  • Local authorities have increased their reliance on volunteers. The number of library volunteers increased by 187% between 2009/10 and 2017/18. The number of volunteer hours tripled over this period, increasing from 500,000 to almost 1.7m.
  • There were 17% fewer libraries in 2017/18 than in 2009/10.

Another recent investigation into libraries in the North East revealed the scale of  closures, reduced hours and huge drop in spending on books in the region.

But sadly, far from being unique, this is merely indicative of the degree that library services have been impacted and how much provision has been degraded throughout the country.

That was then!

It can be argued that the evolution of the public library service has until recently been one of upward progression, despite some faltering steps and periods of inactivity. Certainly, the creation of libraries can be counted as one of the most important social reforms of the Victorian era with the Public Libraries Act of 1850.

[As an aside it will come as no surprise that the Act, designed for the ‘improvement of the public through education’, was opposed by the Tories of the day. It appears that very little changes!]

Along with many other institutions it was mainly due to philanthropy that saw the expansion of libraries so that by 1914 approximately 62% of England’s population lived within a library authority area. By 1919 a new Public Libraries Act gave responsibility for libraries to county councils.

This is not to downplay periods of stagnation of regression for library services but ultimately library provision was an upward trajectory culminating in the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act with the goal to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. Not just locally but for the whole nation.

This is now!

So can the current crisis be viewed as a regression from which the sector will recover? While it would be wrong to say that the pendulum will never eventually swing back towards investment and expansion, the damage done nationally to the underlying infrastructure will, in my opinion, take a long time to recover from. That’s assuming the political will and inclination is even there.

The fragmentation of services, the closures, the increase in volunteers in service delivery or to run libraries, the split between statutory and non-statutory provision, expansion of public service mutuals, delivery by second-tier authorities such as town and parish councils, all mitigate against a quick return to a national model for libraries.

This disintegration of the library eco-sphere, along with the dramatic decrease in funding, will take years, if not decades, to reform. And based on current evidence there appears to be a distinct lack of political will to even attempt such a task.

Unfortunately, while this current crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of the Conservative Government and its predecessor the Coalition – which means the LibDems also carry responsibility – no mainstream party has a coherent strategy for libraries. Labour councils have been as quick as their tory counterparts to adopt localism and the Labour Manifesto states the party’s commitment to both localism and devolution. Equally shadow ministers have been as unwilling to criticise library closures and cutbacks as government ministers.

This lack of strategy has turned into farce in some areas. The move by Derbyshire Council to hand 20 libraries over to the community was dubbed ‘devastating’ by the local Labour Councillors who demanded a professionally-run service. Meanwhile next door in Sheffield Labour heaped praise on volunteer run libraries and lauded them as innovative!

Sadly, there seems to be very little to choose from between both main parties with some of the worse reductions seen in Labour controlled areas such as the aforementioned Sheffield where ironically the Chair of the APPG on Libraries, Gill Furniss, is a local MP.

So the expectation that the worse depredations of the current crisis will be rolled back with a change in administration is not supported by any evidence or facts.

Localism: the road to nowhere

While Localism has been presented as a way of empowering communities and giving residents a greater say in decision-making unfortunately the reverse is true where libraries are concerned.

Far from being empowered to influence decision-making residents are forced to contend with highly biased consultations with limited options. The outcome of which is usually a binary choice of closure or the forced imposition of responsibility onto an ill-prepared community. All dressed up in the language of localism, community empowerment, and local control.

In an excellent piece written for the Guardian by Laura Swaffield, a long-time and tireless campaigner for libraries, she writes that we no longer have a national public library service:

“Until very recently, every local public library was part of a joined-up national network. In even the smallest library, people could be sure to find certain basics such as books and PCs, plus trained staff able to provide a gateway to national assets, including standard online reference works, national newspaper archives, a link to the British Library, access to the summer reading challenge for children in the summer holidays, and much, much more in terms of books, educational resources, reference material and contacts. The whole point was to provide a standard service nationwide. But that has now gone.”

But ignoring the national nature of libraries in favour of localism means the underlying issues and challenges are discounted. For example residents are misled into believing that funding is a problem to be resolved locally rather than as a national issue shaped by government policy.

This reflects the imbalance in local democracy whereby residents have responsibility forced on them but without genuine access to the mechanisms of political influence.

Ultimately volunteer libraries are a highly visible but shallow form of localism and by concentrating solely on local problems communities are treating the symptom rather than the underlying cause. This in turn leads to the implementation of government reforms that exacerbates rather than resolves the library crisis.

Rather than bringing people and communities closer together the crisis in libraries has created division, fragmentation, and lower quality provision. As the Civil Exchange report on the ‘Big Society’ noted:

“Fewer people feel they can influence local decisions, disenchantment with the political system remains widespread and communities are less strong. A market-based model for reforming public services is concentrating power in the hands of new ‘quasi-monopoly’ private sector providers rather than in those of local people and is reducing, not increasing, transparency and accountability.”

If anything the localism agenda has lessened accountability, entrenched inequality of provision, and created library elites at the expense of a more equitable and fairer distribution of resources.

In other words those library services more willing to embrace and implement the government’s agenda, especially in terms of PSMs, commercialism, and volunteer participation have been rewarded with greater opportunities through funding and influence.

Unhappily, this is the politics of division rather than cohesion but rather than challenge the inequities of such a model the library leadership has embraced it.

However, you cannot promote equality by adopting delivery models that actually entrench the opposite.

Localism and libraries

Libraries, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain on a downwards course, which began with the introduction of austerity. Service provision will continue to be fragmented along with deep reductions in funding, staffing, resources, and library off-loading with the occasional closure.

There is no evidence of change by a government divided and distracted by Brexit and indications are for deeper and more damaging cuts to the national network yet to come. Until recently this was mainly a problem in England but funding cuts are now starting to impact in Wales and Scotland as well.

But cuts and closures are only partial aspects of the situation. Off-loading libraries to other providers seems to be the preferred approach, either to community groups, or as I’ve noted before parish/town councils, with Cornwall leading the way.

Even a cursory glance at Ian Anstice’s Public Library News site, despite the occasional new library or refurbishment, reveal a depressing pattern of cuts and threatened closures with Derby and Essex being the two current stand-out proposals.

Again, local people are fighting hard against the proposals, and again it is likely their wishes will be discounted. Many will be expected and required to step in to run libraries themselves.

It is this total disregard for public opinion that reflects what localism actually means in practice to many communities.

But to be fair these two services are only the latest in a long list of failing services. Perhaps the rather dubious award of the most failed service should go to Northamptonshire who outsourced so many aspects of council services, including libraries, and did it so badly, that the council almost went bankrupt (see my previous posts Nothing to laugh at in Northants and Damned if we do and damned if we don’t)

The ex-CEO of Northamptonshire Paul Blantern was also Chair of the Libraries Taskforce and along with other members promoted outsourcing libraries, greater commercialisation, and enabling the replacement of paid staff with volunteers. Rather than learn from the mistakes of Northamptonshire the current Taskforce members continue along the same discredited route.

Recruitment to the sector, particularly new talent, will remain flat. Sadly, years of austerity, hollowing out, and de-professionalisation 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’, which hardly makes public libraries an appealing long-term career prospect.

Even at the senior level of Head of Service we have seen changes that while not quite a trend have worrying implications for the future. Suffolk and Devon, both mutuals, have recently appointed charity bosses as CEOs rather than someone with a library background.

It seems that having a library qualification is no longer adequate enough for staff with aspirations to become HoS. Hardly a welcome thought to ambitious new graduates.

And in fact many library service managers are no longer HoS in the traditional sense but merely the most senior grade in a diminishing service reporting to an ever rotating carousel of departmental managers; leisure, culture, children’s services, housing etc.

It also appears that the role of Head of Service is being shunted down the management structure, ever further away from the senior echelons and decision makers. Obviously, this represents a loss of influence and while some HoS enjoy good working relationships with senior officers many have to wade through several layers of intervening management, each with their own agenda, to get the library message heard.

It is one thing to say libraries must do more to influence key policy makers but the reality is one of services being corporately sidelined and merged with other areas, with the danger that libraries are devalued and no longer viewed as a distinctive service but just another council outlet.

Added to this, is the proliferation of volunteers in service delivery and the widespread view amongst local councillors and national politicians that library staff are unnecessary. In fact the situation has become so dire that technology such as Open+ is considered a suitable replacement to having paid staff on site.

And yet far from defending the role of paid staff SCL/Libraries Connected is heavily involved in advocating for volunteer led libraries. It provides direct training and support for volunteers and along with Locality has set up the Community Managed Libraries Peer Network to ‘help develop sustainable community managed library business models and approaches.’

It’s always puzzled me as to why so many librarians support the work of a body that quite happily accepts government funding to bolster their own organisation while enabling policies that replace paid staff with volunteers and undermines the delivery of a quality library service.

However, their willingness to drive government policy has seen them rewarded with £2m from the Arts Council as a ‘Sector Support Organisation’. A further £75,000 was given to investigate how to strengthen the regional LC groups so no doubt more funding is likely to be forthcoming in the near future to accomplish this.

Oddly it appears to be OK for the government to give funding to library organisations as long as they come up with ways to make actual library services survive with less!

After a hundred years of support through the public purse libraries seem to be regressing backwards to a model that is overly dependent on ad-hoc philanthropy, the good will of volunteers, a two-tier system that entrenches inequality of provision, and commercial partnerships that undermine the value of a ‘safe, neutral and trusted’ place.

And the irony is that absolutely none of these approaches will alleviate the underlying structural issue of sufficient revenue funding.

In years to come Localism will not be seen as saving libraries but rather as a political dead end that destroyed the principle of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service. More damning will be that the profession itself was complicit in allowing it to happen.

Libraries as a commonwealth

Far from being just a local resource, libraries should be viewed as part of a national commonwealth. Rather than localism with the emphasis on ‘community led’ a more joined-up approach should encourage services to be ‘community focused’ while adopting a coherent and cohesive model underpinned by a set of national standards.

We should develop the narrative, whether it’s politically palatable or not, that libraries are a national asset and as such should be wholly, and fairly, publicly funded for the common good.

Services should also be publicly accountable. An essential point that is being lost as some morph into quasi-business entities that hide behind charity law or commercial sensitivity.

Without overly simplifying, library provision should centre around three areas: stock, buildings and staff. Time after time this is what patrons and communities say is most important to them – we need to start listening.

Added to which our core purpose should be to develop and promote literacy, education, and access to information and knowledge, particularly around widening access, facilitating opportunity, and helping disadvantaged individuals and communities to close the attainment gap.

These are not abstract issues but a fundamental challenge to defining libraries place in society. Equally, we need to put aside the fads and fashions that seem to plague the profession.

Traditionally libraries have always prided themselves on providing access to knowledge and learning, of being the champions of literacy, but slowly, exacerbated by the austerity, these principles have been eroded.

Unfortunately, libraries are increasingly used as a shop front for other council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just another building, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. While libraries do have an essential social role to fulfil, merely viewing them as ‘community hubs’ mistakenly puts them on par with almost any other space.

Leisure centres are community hubs, parks are community hubs, pubs are community hubs. But libraries are unique in being a community space and something else, something extra, something special.

Libraries are more than just another meeting space, somewhere were people come together. They have a higher purpose and value. That’s what we need to bear in mind, that’s what we need to cherish and preserve for future generations.

Despite social and technological changes the core purpose of the library is as valid today as it’s always been.

I reject the narrow vision of localism, the fragmentation of a national resource, the inequality of provision. Public libraries are not a luxury dependent on philanthropy. They are a common resource for all. And despite current political dogma they do not belong to individual communities but form part of the wider commonwealth of the nation.

I hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision that leads towards a national approach to library services; that provides genuine oversight, development, and resources. To enable libraries to be the best they can be for the benefit not only of local communities but for society as a whole.

This should be the aspiration of the whole library profession and we should demand better not just from the politicians but from our own leadership.

2 comments

  1. Someone with VISION is needed to reverse the cuts. Instead of reducing hours and cutting trained staff opening hours and days should be increased and more NOISE made about what goes on in a Library, especially the smaller ones in villages. Towns are well supplied with alternatives to Libraries but the remote communities need them much more.The Library Staff leaders need a complete ‘Kick up the backside’. they should get out more and talk to people not just those who already use Libraries but the ‘Man in the street’ to make them aware of the value of what is contained in a good library

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  2. Libraries are joined at the hip with modernism, and modernism’s been shoved in the boot and driven into a lake. Indeed, libraries are as relevant today as they were in 1964, but the world of 1964 is fundamentally a different place – our whole relationship with society and culture has been commandeered. It would require a wholesale revival of modernism to bring the libraries back.

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