Nowadays it’s not often that libraries receive funding rather than seeing it reduced but the Government’s announcement of £7.4 million to increase wifi coverage and internet access in libraries in England has been broadly welcomed in the sector. This was one of the recommendations in the Sieghart report and will bring kudos to the Leadership for Libraries task force.
Sieghart has stated that “I would hope within 18 months every library in the country – including community libraries – will have wi-fi” so it’s clear that the funding will also be extended to volunteer as well as local authority libraries.
That said, there is some questioning on whether or not this is the most effective use of the funding. Commenting on the above article Mick Fortune pointed out that “…leveraging the millions already invested in RFID and using Wifi to help link physical stock to relevant online resources – as is already being done in some European public libraries – and ticking three boxes at once – digital, WiFi and the exploitation of under-used resources” might be the best way forward.
So perhaps the scheme might be refined as it evolves in consultation with library services themselves. Given the IT expertise available in libraries (not just public) Cilip perhaps have a part to play in advising on the best way forward.
More controversial was the additional funding provided by Barclays and BT to provide free wifi and digital support to 57 libraries and 13 community centres in deprived areas across England. This includes support from “Barclays Digital Eagles, specially trained members of Barclays staff who…will work at the new Wi-fi sites to help local people build confidence and develop the skills they need to succeed in the digital world.”
Leaving aside the rather naff name of ‘digital eagle’ (in the public sector we just call them IT support!) many voiced concern via Twitter regarding the ethics of such funding. Particularly from a Bank that has been mired in scandals around Libor, mis-selling PPI, and manipulating energy prices, all of which have incurred massive fines along the way.
I share some of the concerns raised. Unfortunately, the political reality is that libraries are not masters of their own destiny and librarians do not get to make the final choice in these circumstances. Such decisions are made by councillors, cabinet members, and council leaders. Right across the political spectrum it would be a brave council that rejected funding for libraries on ethical grounds.
So while such considerations might give many within the profession pause it would be almost impossible to convince either the public or more importantly council members to reject corporate funding.
Equally, Sieghart has made it clear that this is just the beginning and says that “the government and the task force will [also] look at big corporations making donations of kit – tablets, screens, keyboards etc.”
So given Sieghart’s views and Paul Blantern’s, Chair of the task force, approval of his own library service establishing a donation scheme, it appears that greater corporate and commercial sponsorship of libraries is here for the forseeable future. Whether or not you approve of this will depend on your political outlook and opinion on how public services should – or should not – be funded.
What is becoming obvious however is the fact that the corporate approach is so closely aligned to the current government’s views and ideology that it undermines any claim of independence or impartiality from either Sieghart’s report or the task force. At best the task force represents a mix of political expediency and financial pragmatism. Given that Labour has broadly hinted it will continue with Sieghart’s recommendations I see no genuine change of course from that quarter should they form the next government.
After years of reductions and underfunding councils will take what monies they can get regardless of the ethical credentials of the donors. And I sometimes wonder if the public genuinely care as long as libraries doors are kept open?
So for librarians it’s a case of damned if we do and damned if we don’t, which just goes to prove that occupying the moral high ground can be a very lonely watch indeed.