Category Archives: Library advocacy

It’s Complicated!

I doubt that many people, when the coalition government came to power, could predict the precarious state that public libraries would find themselves in five years later, particularly in England. Obviously over that time local authorities have responded in unique – at least as far as libraries were concerned – and not always popular ways including establishing volunteer led libraries, reducing library networks through closures, and hollowing services out by cutting hours, budgets and staff.  A few have gone down the route of commissioning out, mainly in the form of not for profit trusts.

However, the situation has become so fluid that solutions which appeared robust even a couple of years ago are looking unstable in the current climate. This is not necessarily the fault of the managers involved. I admit that my own views have changed, driven by the fact that it is one thing to develop practical alternatives to mitigate a 10%-20% reduction in funding and another to design a service around 40%-50% cuts, with more to follow. Services are being contorted by the unremitting grind of austerity into misshapen delivery models that ill-match their purpose: from a shop front of ragbag, mismatched council services to financially brittle libraries dependent on the availability and philanthropy of the local community.

That said, it’s also undeniable that councils are under immense financial pressure as the setllement from central government is substantially reduced year on year. According to the LGA central government has cut the settlement to councils by 40% since 2010 with a further reduction by 2018. The current furore between David Cameron and the leader of Oxfordshire Council shows that even the most ardent tory councils have had enough.

No wonder some local authorities seek to transfer assets, co-locate services, and turn libraries into ‘community hubs’, whatever that phrase means.

However, such approaches do not lend themselves to genuine service development and the outcome is that library services become pale imitations of their former selves, far removed from the ideal of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, which is sacrificed on the altar of austerity economics.

Library staff, campaigners, and local communities are often faced with a difficult dilemma when threatened with library closures. The option of choice for most councils appears to be to off-load parts of the network individually to local community groups and volunteers. Another option is to hand over to a private company but thankfully there are few examples of this in the UK. The main one being Carillion, which appears to be an unmitigated disaster. That said, Self-service and Bibliotheca’s Open+ are being used as an excuse to replace staff altogether. This is not a criticism of such technology but it is being used increasingly not to enhance service development but merely to enable staffing cuts.

A pragmatic solution? Personally I prefer my libraries with the human touch.

Another option that fewer councils have adopted is the mutual/trust approach. Many campaigners rightly point out the pitfalls in taking such a path and the pros and cons are summed up on Public Library News.

The main concern about trusts seems to be that they are viewed as a backdoor to privatisation, lack accountability in the way they operate, not least regarding FoI, remove accountability out of the hands of elected representatives, and offer lower employment terms and conditions  for staff. I have great sympathy for some of these concerns particularly over withholding information under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

Data around trusts is also hard to come by so how successful they really are in comparison with a council run service is difficult to reliably quantify.

However, despite these qualms we should not just dismiss the trust approach. Now I have previously argued in favour of trusts, not because I believe they are the ideal solution, but because they offer a pragmatic option over fragmenting library networks by closure or handing over to volunteers. I’ve also never been entirely convinced that this undermines local accountability, mainly because it’s the elected representatives that have helped to create the current crisis. Ask campaigners in Sheffield, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Kirklees…in fact almost anywhere in the country how well local accountability is working!

Yes the ideal might be a fully funded and council run service but in the current political climate and a government ideologically opposed to properly funding public services this is a unrealistic expectation. Maybe circumstances will change in the future under a more sympathetic government but we have a long way to go before we get there. In the meantime we need to develop pragmatic interim solutions.

The latest authority to go down the trust route is Devon, with the adoption of a new identity as Libraries Unlimited South West, which Ian Anstice observed could imply ambitions beyond the Devon area. I’ve explored regional library trusts in previous posts comparing them to  NHS trusts and surmising that perhaps similar cross boundary cooperation could work well for libraries.

Often staff are supportive of the trust model as an alternative but prevented from pursuing this by council members who, for some unfathomable reason, prefer threatening to close libraries as a way of coercing communities into running them.

So if it genuinely comes down to a choice between the option to keep the network mostly intact and run mostly by paid staff and qualified librarians or face the fragmentation of services and handing over to volunteers I know which option I’d choose. In fact where a council is intent on off-loading a large proportion of its library network then campaigners should challenge the council to adopt a trust model.

However, as I say, it’s complicated, and for the foreseeable future likely to get more complicated still.

Tim Coates: Ten Steps to Changing Public Libraries

This guest post comes from Tim Coates, former Waterstone’s boss and library commentator. Tim is known for his outspoken views on libraries and recently criticised the government and councils for showing a lack of leadership. He also called for Ed Vaizey to be replaced.

Tim often comments on this blog and so I invited him to write a piece about what he views as the challenges facing library services and possible solutions, which he has kindly done.

Ten Steps to Changing Public Libraries

1. The first line of the CILIP charter says ‘for the public benefit ‘. That has to be the motto for everything.

2. That means increasing use of libraries as libraries (not as social services or council centres); using limited resources as efficiently as possible; and really understanding what makes people use libraries. There needs to be professional ‘consumer’ analysis . CILIP should conduct this initially and then on a continuous basis.

3. All training, including professional training, has to be directed at understanding and meeting people’s library needs – NOT the traditional academic ideas of information management . Training needs to change to be about service and books and information resources and open to anyone who works in the service. CILIP should facilitate and monitor this.

4. All people who work in libraries should give professional service, be equipped to do so and be acknowledged by the profession by virtue of their experience and skills – not their education. There should be no more demarcations about who can do which jobs – except by the ability to do those jobs properly. CILIP should oversee this.

5. The emphasis should be on local libraries in local communities with management and systems designed and empowered to give the best service. Localism means local libraries not local councils. The library systems for management and acquisition of material should be national and standard and able to be used by any local library with its own budget . CILIP should cooperate in this.

6. Councils need help to make best use of the budgets they can allocate to libraries and how much money is needed. Local residents should know what they should expect from local libraries and how well their local library performs . Local people should be able to look for increasing use of each individual library . CILIP should provide this, explaining all the while why good libraries are of benefit to the people within the jurisdiction of the council and why.

7. Councils should be able to call on CILIP for special projects and advice knowing that the priority will be to the service to local people and issues of that kind and will not be about protecting jobs.

8. There should be a national digital library as a resource available to all libraries and library users – CILIP should participate in facilitating this . This should be linked into and operated through one standard national library management system with the various book and material suppliers.

9. I believe that creating one absolutely standard ILMS specification (not a ‘minimum standard) is essential to the project on digital development – and to the future of the service as a whole . Without being disagreeable, it should not be carried out by a committee – but by the most expert group that can be found.

There should be no need to spend £20m on an umbrella system if the ILMS requirements were specified properly and totally standard.

10. With the emphasis on local: libraries rather than councils – there needs to be a wholesale reorganisation of the English library service into 6-10 regions . There should eventually be no council library authorities. CILIP should cooperate in the creation and establishment of these new larger regions and the removal of the old ones – it should work with national task forces on all these things

If it did these things there would be nothing ‘amateurish’ whatsoever about the library profession.

Tim Coates

 

 

Cilip AGM 2015

Cilipres4I was unable to attend the AGM this year but thanks to the wonder of technology and the excellent work of Cilip staff I was able to follow the proceedings via a live video link.

As usual the Libraries Change Lives Award was inspirational and full of ideas for other services to emulate. Well done to all the shortlisted candidates and particularly well done to the winner, North Ayrshire Libraries, with their ‘Appiness’ digital programme for pre-schoolers and parents.

There were six worthy recipients of the Honorary Fellowship award this year including Ian Anstice of Public Library News fame. Never has an award been so richly deserved and Twitter was alight with people (including myself) offering congratulations. There are not enough superlatives for Ian’s excellent work so I will stick with saying incredibly well done, without his hard work and dedication the library world would be a poorer and less informed place.

Unfortunately, the subscriptions were raised once again on a vote of 105 for, 33 Against & 5 Abstentions. My opposition to the rise is well known and at the meeting there was a lot of criticism of the £17-£42k band. Mike Hoskings, Cilip Treasurer has indicated  that this will be looked at, and despite promises to the same for the past five years, perhaps this will be the year something actually changes. I remain ever hopeful.

Nick Poole highlighted the increased advocacy by Cilip this past year and announced the launch of the Strategic Plan 2016-2020, called Shape the Future:

‘Shape the Future is an open, collaborative project to develop CILIP’s Strategic Plan 2016-2020. We want to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to contribute to this plan including members and non-members, external parties, staff and partners in all 4 nations of the UK and internationally.’

One of the most urgent areas to be addressed will be the continuing decline in membership. Apparently, there are now only 3000 members from public libraries left in Cilip. It’s difficult to decide if there is one over-riding factor for the decline but I would hazard a guess that weak advocacy from Cilip over the past 5 years has played a major part. Equally, the loss of 37% professionally qualified staff in public libraries since 2009/10 won’t have helped either.

That said, I do see some change in Cilip’s approach and certainly since becoming CEO Nick Poole has been more overt in advocating for the profession as evidenced by the string of TV and radio interviews recently. Equally, the Board backed resolution 4 last night opposing the amateurisation of public libraries. Again, well done to Andy Richardson & Anna Brynolf for submitting the motion and presenting it so eloquently.

Most people were in favour of the motion. Some minor amendments were made with the replacement of the word ‘manned’ by ‘staffed’, and the resolution was easily passed.

Sue Williamson, Head of Library Services at St Helens, felt is was unfair to apportion blame to senior library managers as they often had little choice in making such changes. No one, certainly not Heads of Service want the amateurisation of the profession. I quite agree with Sue’s comments and have often written how difficult it is for managers to resist such changes since decisions are made by councillors.

This is where the Society of Chief Librarians have a vital role to play. While individual HoS, as paid council officers, have no choice but to implement changes – and many do argue quite strongly behind the scenes – SCL, as the body representing senior library managers, could make an unequivocal statement opposing volunteer run libraries and the loss of paid staff.

However, this might not be realistic given that only a year ago the President of SCL as part of her inaugural speech stated that a priority was to “…explore how we might develop resources and a framework to support community-led libraries.” It might be that Cilip and SCL’s positions on this issue are starting to diverge significantly.

Another interesting factor will be reconciling the principle of the resolution with the fact that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. On the face of it the resolution would appear to preclude Jan recommending that Liverpool hand over further libraries to community groups or volunteers. We shall just have to wait and see what models are eventually suggested.

So, another AGM over with lots of changes afoot. I’m certainly looking forward to the Shape the Future consultation, greater advocacy and opposition to volunteer run libraries, but most of all, to finally sorting out the subscription bands.

 

 

Keep library staff to keep changing lives

For anyone who has missed it there is an excellent interview with Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce and Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, talking about library priorities particularly in relation to the Government Spending Review in November.

You don’t have to agree with everything that’s said but there are some very important points for library staff and campaigners alike to reflect on. Amongst the many comments the following from Nick Poole really stood out for me:

“My biggest concern is that we allow services to be hollowed-out in the name of keeping up appearances, keeping the doors open while reducing the range and quality of services offered by skilled and qualified staff.

We can’t afford to focus on the short-term situation while allowing library services to be systematically under-funded. We need to fight the battles ahead while remaining focused on the real aim – which is to deliver the modern and comprehensive library network that the public need and have a right to expect.”

I doubt there is anyone within the sector that would disagree with these sentiments and all credit to Nick for making such assertions so publicly. This acknowledgement of the importance of paid staff is further evidenced by Cilip Board members support for the resolution on the ‘amateurisation’ of public libraries proposed by Andy Richardson. The reason for the proposal is explained by Andy here.

The importance of skilled and qualified staff delivering a meaningful service to communities is highlighted through the Libraries Change Lives Award. Every year this provides a showcase for wonderfully innovative projects that have a real social impact within communities. It’s worth reading through the list of past winners and this year’s shortlisted finalists to get a flavour of how important libraries are and can be to their communities.

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The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives.

And let’s not forget that this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the projects that happen everyday within libraries. The real point here is that it is paid staff that dream up, develop, and deliver on these initiatives. Without them none of this innovation would be possible.

Unfortunately, the steady encroachment of volunteer run libraries threatens to undermine all of this. As Martyn Wade, Chair of Cilip Board states:

“Volunteers should be an asset. We should recognise the valuable skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and fresh perspectives that volunteers can provide. But we must act when the quality and long-term sustainability of library services is at risk.”

Even innovation that is now taken for granted and considered standard service e.g. reading groups and film nights were first and foremost instigated by library staff or developed in partnership with individuals and organisations. Other initiatives developed with bodies like the Reading Agency have become mainstays of library provision such as the Summer Reading Challenge or Reading Ahead (previously the Six Book Challenge).

Staff continue to provide innovation from the library based Fab Lab in Exeter to the Get it loud in libraries project. Despite the challenging financial reductions and the fragmentation of services innovation is in the blood of librarians.

However, for this to continue skilled and qualified staff need to play a central part in all libraries; not just as managers and supervisors of volunteer run libraries, the overseers of the charity shop or hub and spoke model run by unpaid amateurs but as innovators embedded in their communities delivering core services.

For an overwhelming argument in support of paid staff look no further than the Libraries Change Lives Awards. Good luck to all those shortlisted.

The ‘Amateurisation’ of Public Libraries

The 2015 CILIP AGM takes place on Thursday 24 September at CILIP Headquarters and unlike previous years is a fairly low key affair estimated to take just over two hours. As usual I would urge all those members who cannot attend to at least use their proxy votes.

The two areas that have grabbed my attention are the proposal by Andy Richardson and Anna Brynolf (below) and the, as usual, ever increasing subscription rates. The unnecessary increase in subs is something I argued against last year but it seems that Cilip is determined to treat members as milch cows despite the job losses and limit on public sector pay. This is a matter I will return to in a future post.

Well done to Andy and Anna for submitting the following proposal and saying what many within the profession think. The phrase ‘amateurisation of the Public Library services’ sums up the current situation succinctly and encapsulates in a single word the reductions, hollowing out, deprofessionalisation, and handing over to volunteers. Amateurisation indeed!

The wording of the proposal is:

“That CILIP actively oppose those public authorities and senior library staff over the “amateurisation” of the Public Library service by offering library buildings and contents to be run by the local community with little or no funding for professional or paid library staff. This is resulting in public libraries being run by volunteer staff and taking away work currently done by paid professional and library assistant staff. All current public library service points manned by paid local authority library staff should be the current base-line – and where such actions are suggested by the local authority and senior library staff, CILIP should support the opposition to such proposals and say so publicly.”

 

Vol stats

The loss of staff and increase in volunteers is starkly illustrated in this graph from the Guardian.

Recently Cilip has raised its profile around advocating for libraries and Nick Poole has done a round of radio and TV interviews talking about library closures. However, I still think Cilip’s approach is too softly-softly so will be supporting the proposal and urging Cilip to be more adversarial in its opposition to the removal of paid staff.

This proposal transitions interestingly into the announcement that Jan Parry, President of Cilip, has been appointed to lead a task-force charged with working out how Liverpool’s libraries will be funded from 2017 onwards. From one perspective this is a positive move to involve those who actually know about libraries, from another it could be seen as glossing over the relinquishing of 5 libraries to volunteers and the loss of paid staff.

So this is a precarious position for Cilip. Any move to find a solution which involves volunteer libraries will be met with outrage from members and campaigners alike and will run contrary to the above proposal if passed.

Cilip has released a statement in support of the work Jan has been asked to do. Unfortunately, it is couched in terms that immediately gives rise for concern and suspicion in that it is similar to the vague terminology and management-speak that seeks to disguise reductions to service and removal of staff.

Cilip needs to clarify in plain English whether or not this will mean supporting, even indirectly, volunteer run libraries. It would be reassuring if Cilip were to offer a base-line affirmation, along the lines of the SLIC recommendation, that volunteer run libraries without paid professional staff are not the preferred option.

There is a basic financial imperative for Cilip in all of this. It is paid staff, not volunteers, that pay subscriptions and without employment they are unable to do so. So less employment for members means less members for Cilip. Simple really!

Addendum

Interesting comment from librariesmatter:

Just a thought …..if CILIP had wider membership then perhaps it wouldn’t need to raise subscription rates and it wouldn’t be seen so much as a narrow professional body merely protecting its members interests.

For example the American Library Association provides personal membership to Library Friends, Trustees and Associates. CILIP for some reason doesn’t embrace such people.

 

 

 

What is comprehensive & efficient?

Providing a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ is considered the touchstone of library provision and a constant refrain during campaigns to save libraries from closure. The notion is enshrined in law through the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and until 2010 there was little reason to fully discuss, let alone define, what this actually meant. After all, we all knew what it meant, right! In the best progressive tradition libraries were not only considered a good thing by their very existence but de facto ‘efficient & comprehensive’ became synonymous with expansion: more libraries, more staff, more resources to cater for a growing population and expanding towns and cities.

Only twice has a government felt compelled to conduct a formal public inquiry into local authorities plans for library closures: once in Derbyshire in 1991, and more significantly in the Wirral in 2009. Unfortunately, such intervention was short-lived as were the lessons learned.

The election of 2010 and the introduction of an austerity driven coalition government resulted in a rude awakening for the library sector including the abolition of the MLA and the Advisory Council on Libraries. Faced with large scale reductions, deprofessionalisation, and the steadfast non-intervention by the Minister of State for Culture – who for decades it was thought would always intercede for the benefit of libraries – the great cornerstone of library protection turned out to be more fiction than fact.

The difficulty is that no one is able to define what comprehensive and efficient actually means, at least not to the extent that meets general consensus and acceptance. For some the term is associated with an extensive network of physical buildings and paid staff, while to others the term is equally applicable to few service points but with reliance on technology such as RFID, 24/7 online services, wifi, and mobile apps for libraries.

Some authorities consider volunteer libraries to form part of their statutory provision and thus retain the characteristics of a comprehensive service, while many campaigners would take issue with this approach. Because the term is not defined in the 1964 Act it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Even during judicial reviews the courts have refused to get drawn into the quagmire of a legal definition, concentrating instead on the technical aspects of the consultation process.The MLA had produced a checklist for local authorities to use but again this has more to do with the process rather than defining terms or meaning.

Thus, the concept has failed so ‘comprehensively’ (pun intended) that Herefordshire Council can now seriously suggest reducing library provision down to a single main library, with the remaining taken over by volunteers or being self-service only.

So the question becomes that if the notion is no longer fit for purpose does it need replacing and if so what with? I realise this will be a contentious and in some quarters heretical suggestion but to continue with a principle that has become so outdated and impractical allows others to control the narrative to the disadvantage of meaningful library provision.

In my submission to the Sieghart Review I suggested that a set of core principles and values should be established similar to that which underpins the NHS. These principles should be regulated nationally but with scope for local interpretation.

For example, principles for the public library service might include:

  • Free access and membership for all  
  • Provision of and access to information in appropriate formats e.g. online resources
  • Access to books in all formats
  • Provision of a community space – for individual study, lifelong learning, workshops, and changing expectations e.g. maker spaces/hack spaces
  • Access to economic wellbeing opportunities – recognising the economic roles of libraries e.g. providing access to employment and benefits information, facilities for job hunting, re-skilling, and innovative approaches such as business hubs and enterprising libraries

The Voices for the Library manifesto is similar in advocating for a defined level of service including paid staff and professional librarians.

Such core principles should be overseen by an independent body that recognises the specific opportunities and remit of public libraries, enables evidence based research, sets standard, shares best practice, and provides advice to the relevant government departments and Minister for Culture. Perhaps along the lines of the Scottish Library & Information Council.

The term ‘comprehensive’ and efficient’ is no longer helpful and is inadequate to capture the changing nature of library provision. It lacks definition, is relative, and in many instances unquantifiable and could more usefully be replaced with a set of core principles and values as outlined above.

The principles and values should be based on continuing free access to literacy, learning and information and underpin the social value and instrumental role libraries play in creating a literate and educated population.

Addendum

A detailed account of the now defunct library standards and relation to the 1964 Act can be found on Public Library News: Public Library Standards in England.

In a twitter conversation with Nick Poole, CEO of Cilip, he quite rightly points out that standards and regulation are needed to underpin the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’. I totally agree and the NHS principles & values I highlighted are obviously underpinned by standards & regulation.

Nick also points out that industry standards might prove useful. Again I agree and look forward to Cilip developing some as well as stating what its view of ‘comprehensive & efficient’ is. After all, if the professional body for librarians is unable to define the term what hope has anyone got!

Situation in Wales (from Alyson Tyler)

Wales is a lot smaller than England, but your readers might be interested in the Welsh Public Library Standards, which have been in operation since 2002. Frameworks run on a three year cycle. The current framework has 18 core entitlements which sound much like your principles and values, and also 16 quality indicators, some of which have targets, some of which can be benchmarked, and some of which are impact measures. No system is perfect and not everyone agrees on everything of course. http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/standards/?lang=en

We’ve got five years..!

save our library

It’s something of an understatement to say that the results of the general election were  disappointing, not just on a personal level but also for what it means for libraries. It’s difficult not to be despondent over the ramifications, which are outlined by Ian Anstice on Public Library News, with the headlines being:

  • Continuing deep cuts to budgets and increasing co-location
  • Off-loading more libraries to volunteers or closure
  • The removal of paid staff, continuing deprofessionalisation, and increasing anxiety about job security
  • Reducing the ability to mount legal challenges and continuing non-intervention by the culture minister
  • Continuing reduction of mobile services

This, unfortunately will be the new realism of the next five years and I believe Ian’s analysis will prove to be depressingly accurate. What we will see now is the re-invigoration of Big Society principles, underpinned by Localism, which will transform the whole public library landscape. The Conservatives are ideologically driven by the desire for a smaller state, less direct government intervention, and reduced public services delivered increasingly by third sector, voluntary organisations, and the private sector.

Libraries will continue to be, along with other public services, hostages to such ideology with little in the way to restrain the inevitable outcome and decline. I have no doubt that public libraries will continue to exist in the future but in a form that is radically different to that of 10 or even 5 years ago in terms of delivery and funding. Whether they will remain comprehensive and efficient in their new form will be open to intense debate.

For many campaigners therefore the battle to protect libraries continues but perhaps there needs to be a period of reflection and consolidation in order to formulate, if possible, a unified national strategy to resist the coming changes. I am not directly involved with the Library Campaign, Speak Up For Libraries, or Voices for the Library but it seems to me that these organsiations would be best placed to begin such a conversation.

Unfortunately, campaigns of the past five years have had only limited success. To be more effective in the future library protest needs to evolve and align with different local and national campaigns, over hospitals, education, tax avoidance etc. There is strength in unity but too many campaigns for libraries have acted in isolation. Such insularity will be even less effective in the face of rampant Tory ideology. It’s not just public libraries but all those in the public sector; schools, colleges, university, and NHS libraries that will be under threat.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity have organised a mass protest in London on June 20th. It would be an empowering gesture if there were a large library contingent there made up of campaigners, organisations – dare I hope for Cilip input – save library groups, staff, and of course library users. Not just speaking up for libraries but shouting out for them.

What has become increasingly obvious is that it’s difficult to campaign for libraries without appreciating what is happening to public services overall. When I first started this blog it was in response to a very narrow debate within Cilip over a name change. It quickly morphed into advocating for libraries and library staff as reductions and closures increased in pace. But against this background was always the hope that the coalition would be ousted and a slow recovery could begin. That hope has been well and truly dashed.

After the election David Cameron announced his aim was “…to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom” under the mantle of ‘One Nation’. Almost immediately we found out what sort of ‘one nation’ he meant with massive welfare cuts, attacks on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, scrapping the human rights act, destroying workers rights, and more damaging austerity measures.

But we are not ‘One Nation’ and many of us do not agree with the vision Cameron offers. This government does not represent the majority. It is the result of an archaic and increasingly undemocratic voting system in which the Conservatives are governing with only 24% of the vote. This is not a mandate.

Thus, the fight for libraries is also the fight for public services and changing the system so that it works for everyone not just an elite. The downside of the election is we have five more years of Tory government, the upside is we have five years to fight for real and lasting change.

What sort of library service will remain in five years is of real concern but sadly only time will tell.

Libraries: think, act and vote small!

Save our libraryI watched the leadership debate last night and regardless of which candidate or party you support, and it’s unlikely the debate would have done anything to alter your view, the fact is mainstream politics in the UK is changing rapidly. The traditional, monolithic stranglehold of the two big parties is being slowly pried apart and most commentators agree that multi-party politics in Britain is here to stay.

Personally, I thought it was the three women in the debate, Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green Party), and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) that came out of it the best and all challenged the prevailing austerity myth of the Westminster parties. Well done to Natalie Bennett for mentioning libraries as being one of the public services being irrevocably damaged by the Coalition’s slavish commitment to austerity.

However, it’s surprising how many within the library world are put off as soon as the ‘P’ word is mentioned; and by that I mean politics. Any attempt to equate the fight for public libraries with the wider political situation is met with uncomfortable shuffling and muttering. Quickly followed by an attempt to turn the conversation back to ‘real’ library issues such as copyright, LMS suppliers, the theme for this year’s SRC, or the ongoing gripe about the cost of Cilip subs.

It’s as if, for some, libraries should be insulated and set apart from the grubby reality of every day politics and the sad truth is, as a profession, librarians are shockingly disengaged in the fight to protect services, relying instead on the public to fight our battles for us.

To me this is an extremely naive and myopic view. From local campaigns, legal challenges, judicial reviews, bitter infighting amongst councillors, the changing terminology of cuts, and even the composition of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, politics imbues and influences everything libraries do. Libraries are a public service and as any politician or councillor will tell you, public services are political at both local and national level.

However, it would be wrong to say that no fightback has taken place during the past five years and advocacy work has been carried out by many dedicated individuals both within and outside the profession.

One of the biggest criticisms about library advocacy so far  is that even quite compelling evidence about the value of libraries has had little effect. The usual response is to blame the library sector for not advocating strongly enough but the real issue is that the arguments have been ignored because they run contrary to government policy and ideology (for an excellent blog on this see Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity).

The only sop to libraries from the Government has been the setting-up of the libraries task force.

Whether the task force will be a genuine agent of change or merely a cover for the continued enforcement of government policy remains to be seen. Certainly the rather narrow emphasis on digital services or commitment to supporting and extending volunteer run libraries does little to solve the deep rooted problems facing the sector.

It’s also hard not to be cynical over the recent £7.4 million budget announcement for wifi in libraries when set against the very real 30%-40% reduction in library budgets over the course of this parliament. Less cuts would have resulted in wifi already being available rather than having to be grateful for this rather paltry and obvious pre-election bribe.

What is clear is none of this will change under the mainstream parties.

So let me argue why the new multi-party politics is a good thing for libraries. It’s good because the smaller parties give library supporters and campaigners more chance to influence policy. Regardless of the rhetoric of Labour and the Conservatives a vote for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or the Greens is not a wasted vote. Maybe this election, or maybe the next, but certainly at some point, one or more of these parties will be a power broker and a party that has a positive view of and genuine commitment to libraries will bring this influence to bear, hopefully pushing back some of the the damage that has already been done.

Thousands of library staff, campaigners and library supporters, as well as millions of everyday library users will be going to the polls on 7th May and while libraries might not be the deciding factor in who they vote for it might just well be ‘a’ factor in their decision.

The big parties offer no positive alternative for libraries but the small parties might. So in order to make a long-term difference to the future of public libraries now is the time to think, act and vote small.

Reply from the Green Party

I’ve had a reply from Martin Dobson, Culture Spokesperson for the Green Party. Apparently the Green Party, while having many activists involved in library campaigns, don’t have an official policy on libraries. What surprised me though was Martin’s openness about the issue, which I found both refreshing and a very human response. Certainly in contrast to the the avoidance tactics of Labour’s Chris Bryant and the obfuscation or downright misrepresentation of the Conservatives.

Perhaps the one area that I would question is point one. While local decision making is admirable, where there’s a clear dereliction of duty by the local council, Lincolnshire being a case in point, I believe it’s the Minister’s duty under the 1964 Act to intervene to protect local services. Unfortunately, the current incumbent Ed Vaizey has been rather remiss in this area for ideological reasons and the Tories avowed intent to reduce public services.

I have included the 3 questions that I asked Martin to give context to his reply:

Questions

1. Should local authorities be allowed to decide on the future of libraries in their own areas without intervention from the Minister for Culture or should the Minister intervene to protect library provision?

2. Many councils have blamed the decrease in central government funding as the reason for no longer being able to afford to run libraries. What would the Green Party do to protect funding specifically for libraries?

3. Do you believe that libraries should be run by community groups/volunteers even if that means replacing paid staff? If not, what would Green Party do specifically to prevent this.

Reply

Dear Leon,

I am glad that you have contacted us in the Green Party because many Green Party activists are involved in campaigns to save their local libraries. Having said that, I have looked and found that we do not have a lot of very specific policy around the management of libraries in our ‘Policies for a Sustainable Society’ – which are our long term policy aspirations.

So I am going to answer your questions based on my knowledge of the work of local councillors and our philosophical basis.

1. The Green Party believes that nothing should be decided at a higher level if it can be decided at a lower one. We therefore would prefer that decisions about local libraries be taken locally within each local authority rather than at the level of Minister for Culture.

2. The Green Party would straight away inject a substantial amount of money into local authorities so that they could restore local services. The amounts will be announced when we launch our fully costed manifesto hopefully later this month. I would expect that local authorities would use this money to restore libraries to the professionally run services that people have enjoyed for so long.

3. This is a very interesting question and we do not have any specific policy to answer it fully. However I know many Green Party members who believe, like me, that libraries should be run and managed by professionally trained and adequately remunerated librarians.

Your email has highlighted for me what little we have in our policies around our vision for libraries, which contrasts with the passion that many Green Party members feel about saving their local library service. As soon as this election is over I will, in my role of Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport start the process of thinking through a vision for libraries within a sustainable society. I am sure many people within the party will want to contribute to the discussions, but if you our your colleagues have any suggestions I would be grateful for your ideas.

I should explain that, unlike other parties, our policy is wholly made by the members at our twice yearly national conferences. It isn’t a short process, and often there isn’t enough time to discuss good ideas. However I am sure that there would be a lot of support to get this subject on the agenda sooner rather than later.

I hope that this answers your questions sufficiently for now. Hopefully we can give a better answer sometime soon.

With all best wishes,

Martin Dobson
Green Party Spokesperson on Culture, Media and Sports
and Parliamentary Candidate for Liverpool Riverside

 

 

 

Libraries: an anachronism?

I was following a twitter conversation about the potential changes to Bristol Libraries and campaigners were angry with a piece in the Bristol Post  saying libraries are an anachronism. It’s not the first time that this ill-informed view has been aired and unfortunately it won’t be the last. Sometimes it’s from genuine ignorance of what libraries are and do and sometimes it’s an opposing ideological or political viewpoint to what libraries represent.

Rather than using facts, figures and stats (although they can be a useful weapon in the armoury of our arguments) my reply was one based on the principles that libraries are emblematic of. An acknowledgement that in the narrow neoliberal, consumerist society that many politicians and corporate interests are trying to enforce on us, libraries can indeed be seen as an anachronism, but one that represents the best of civic mindedness, and of which we should be proud and treasure.

publiclibrary

Libraries are an anachronism, a wonderful, beautiful anachronism: a free space, with access to unrestricted thoughts and ideas, in a world of narrow minded gain and bottom line economics.

They create communities and build society in the face of selfish individualism. They promote tolerance and openness in the face of bigotry and hatred.

They educate, inform and entertain, all for free, at a time when the powers that be wish us all to be good little consumers, vacuous and unquestioning.

They are a symbol of a public service for the common good when the authorities want sell our public services to the highest bidder for private gain.

They are an anachronism in the eyes of an elite that want to dis-empower us, keep us down and ill-informed.

A philosophical anachronism from a different era when radicals and visionaries understood you created a more just and equal society by lifting, not demonising, the poor and vulnerable sections of society. 

Libraries were and continue to be an essential part of the journey towards social equality.

Libraries are everything that neoliberalism and its acolytes undervalue and scorn and so should be everything that we love, cherish and fight to preserve.