Local media: the local newspaper or radio is usually the first source of news about library cuts and reductions. Keep an eye out for such stories and links to council documents and council contacts.
Build up good relations by always informing them of campaigning activities such as demonstrations or petition signing. Get used to preparing press releases.
Social media: If you disagree with the proposals you can bet that other residents and library users will as well. Use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to make contact with like-minded individuals and for campaigning. Set-up dedicated accounts.
Meetings: good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings with others is the best way to get organised. Arrange one in your local area.
Other campaigns: There are lots of library campaigns happening all over the country. See if a neighbouring authority has a campaign group as it’s worth making contact and learning from their experience.
Sadly, cuts to libraries are almost universal and most areas will have a campaigning group. Check out the Library Campaign website.
Petitions: there are different views regarding petitions. My own is that they rarely have an impact on the final outcome of the council’s decision. However, they are a great way to raise the profile of the campaign and gather support.
Online and direct sign-up e.g. outside the threatened library is a good way of gaining publicity but remember that petition forms cannot be placed in the library itself. Canvassing is also not allowed in the library.
Consultations: ensure that you attend any public consultations that are organised by the council to ask questions and obtain further information.
2. Library staff
Staff are in a difficult position in that it is usually their jobs at risk and they are not allowed to talk publicly about the Council’s proposals. Be sensitive and do not put library staff under pressure to speak out.
That said library staff are also residents and private citizens so can talk outside of work as long as they don’t reveal any details they are privy to in their work roles. Library staff can join campaigns and are able to sign petitions. Again, this must be done as a resident and not as a member of staff.
Staff must not publicly criticise the council or engage in actions which bring the authority into disrepute as this could result in disciplinary action. It’s a fine line to tread, which is why many staff choose to remain silent.
Passion will only take you so far and opposition to the proposals should be seen as the first step. To be effective you need to build counter-proposals based on evidence so remember to Question Everything!
- Ask for usage and financial data for the library or libraries involved.
- Don’t take at face value statistics released as part of the consultation. It’s in the council’s interest to be selective in what data they release to prove their case. For instance borrowing figures might be down but visitor numbers might be up due to other activities taking place in the library space, particularly IT related. Adult borrowing might be down but children’s borrowing up. Make sure you fully understand what the library is used for and how it is measured.
- Cipfa statistics are a good starting point for assessing a library’s performance and funding for previous years
- Staffing is the single most expensive outlay, which has led to many councils ‘hollowing out’ services by deleting specialist librarian posts or replacing experienced library assistants with generic customer services posts. So decide if you are fighting to preserve the library building or the building plus experienced library staff.
- Over the years many councils have reduced stock budgets so request information about spending on books and other stock. Despite all the other wonderful activities in libraries books are still the main USP so if spending on stock has decreased then it’s no wonder usage might have fallen.
Sadly, showing how well a library is used and valued does not always convince a council faced with financial pressures to change their mind. The question many campaigners get asked in response is how they would make the savings?
So campaigners will need to consider developing an alternative strategy or to highlight how savings can be made elsewhere. Again, this needs to be realistic as much of a council’s budget goes to Adult Social Care and Children’s Services. Unfortunately, you will be operating in an environment in which financial arguments usually win over those of social value.
Finally, if your council is reluctant to share information remember you can make requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Each Council should have guidelines on its website. The ‘What Do They Know’ website provides helpful advice around FOI.
4. Council decision making
Council contacts: Ensure you know who the leader of the council and the lead member for libraries are and their contact details. After all you will be contacting them regularly.
Keep all correspondence including social media contact courteous. No one reacts well to abuse and it is counter-productive to your campaign. Remember council leaders are under pressure to balance the council’s budget and are not necessarily anti-libraries.
Council meetings: the business of the council is conducted through a variety of different meetings. Make sure you understand how the process works and who to contact. Council websites should have a list of when committees meet with agendas and minutes being available. Committees to be aware of include:
- Full Council
There should also be details of a named council officer to whom you can submit questions for these meetings. Each council will work slightly differently so search the website and find out which meetings are most applicable.
Councillors: seek to build a broad coalition of councillor support and not just from one party. Nothing undermines a campaign more than it being seen as partisan. Ensure the campaign maintains independence of any one political party.
Sympathetic councillors can guide you through the intricacies and bureaucracy of council meetings.
Council spending: understand council spending, find out what the priorities are, what projects are being funded, and how much reserves they have. This will help you make realistic budget suggestions.
Other options: Check also that all others options have been explored including joint working with other authorities or establishing a public service mutual model (see Library Trusts below). PSMs are a contentious issue with many campaigners being against them but they are favoured by the current Government.
Write to your MP or go to their surgery to discuss the campaign. MPs usually have good relations or at least understanding of the local council and might be willing to make representation on your behalf.
Again, as with councillors, do not hector or abuse if the MP disagrees with you as this is counter-productive to achieving your aims no matter how strongly you feel.
6. Sources of information
Public Library News: PLN is the pre-eminent site for news about libraries nationally and changes to library services. It contains a wealth of information re: advocating for libraries and reasons as to why they are important.
Speak up for Libraries: is a coalition of organisations and campaigners working to protect libraries and library staff. SUFL also runs an annual conference for campaigners to meet up and learn from each other.
The Library Campaign: are an independent national organisation set up to support Friends of Library groups and campaigns for improved services in publicly funded libraries. It produces a regular news round-up of all things library related.
Voices for the Library: Now sadly defunct but the site still contains valuable information. It aims to provide the facts about the public library service in the UK, the role of professional librarians and provide a space for library users to share their stories about the difference public libraries have made to their lives.
7. Cilip: the library and information association
CILIP is the professional body for librarians and library workers. It’s worth checking out the news and blog sections of the websites for up to date information re: library campaigns and issues.
Cilip also runs the My Library By Right campaign, which contains useful information for campaigning. They also act as the secretariat and public enquiry point for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries.
8. Government contacts
Michael Ellis MP: is the Government Minister with responsibility for Libraries
DCMS: the DCMS has responsibility for libraries and can be contacted by campaigners to express concerns about local authorities plans for public libraries. They have a dedicated libraries officer who deals with such enquiries and who provides advice to the Minister.
9. Localism Act & Community Right to Bid
Community Right to Bid: gives community groups the chance to bid for local assets such as community centres and libraries enabling voluntary groups, charities, parish councils and employees to run local authority services. Each council is required to keep a register of Community Assets and guidance on how to submit an application. This information can be found on the Council’s website.
Locality has also produced a quick and easy guide to the community right to bid.
10. Library Trusts
Ultimately, if the bid to stop a library closing is unsuccessful, campaign groups might have to accept the only way to keep the library open is to take it on themselves as a community or volunteer run library. Most times this means running the library as a charitable enterprise or other similar model. Some authorities have even established a Public Service Mutual to run the library service
The DCMS is keen for councils to consider different models for local service delivery. The recently published Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021 stated that the:
“DCMS will provide dedicated support for library services to explore and, where it is right for them, spin out into a public service mutual model. It will build on the experience of trailblazing library services, and previous government support programmes.”
Longer term, DCMS will also discuss with the sector the benefits of establishing a more permanent support body for public sector mutuals across all sectors at national level to assist shifts to new ways of working; for example, franchising support services to enable economies of scale and speedier spin-out.”
However, some campaigners believe this is just another path to privatising services and object on political grounds, seeing this as undermining the public service ethos and social good of libraries. Instead they argue services should stay under direct local authority control.
There is also controversy around volunteers taking over from paid staff, with campaigners claiming closures are a ploy by councils to force the public to step forward. If groups refused to run libraries then many councils would find it politically unpalatable to forge ahead with the reductions.
[Disclaimer: these tips are based on my own experience. Campaigners and individuals must decide for themselves what actions are most suitable for their local circumstances and act accordingly. All actions and decisions are the responsibility of the individual(s) involved]
Please feel free to contact me.