Date Set for Dataset?

Further information

Well this saga runs and runs! Apparently it’s not that Taskforce holding up the dataset but Downing Street. Should we be honoured or horrified! Perhaps a little of both. Would that this information had been shared with the profession by the Taskforce and the Minister. But that’s my political naivety coming through: expecting government bodies or minister’s to share something as simple as the truth!

On the face of it would appear to let the Taskforce off the hook over the issue but it also lays bare a fundamental flaw: that the Taskforce has very little influence or ability to enact real change in the sector, except the change dictated by government policy. And we all know where that is leading.

So perhaps they should just continue with what they are becoming best known for: publishing a blog and arranging workshops. It’s not much but it is something.

Looking at the comments below it might be that the way forward is to collate and release such data through the profession itself. More on that to follow.

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It’s been brought to my attention in the comments section that a parliamentary question had been asked:

Question From Kevin Brennan – 20 Dec 16
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what the timetable is for the release of data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries; and if she will make a statement.

Answer from Rob Wilson – 9 Jan 17
The data collected by the Libraries Taskforce in relation to statutory and non-statutory public libraries will be published in due course.

Due course…soon…shortly…any minute…before long!! How many more excuses can Rob Wilson give?

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Since publishing the post below a few interesting facts have emerged. In a tweet even the Chair of the Libraries Taskforce has implied the information is being withheld:

And if even the Chair of the Taskforce cannot release the data collected then it rather undermines their credibility as a body.

Paul indicates that the data is not quite as bad as anticipated but if that’s the case why the reluctance to publish? Unfortunately, even when eventually published the information will be out of date especially given the raft of changes to libraries since last year. It also makes a mockery of the Taskforces ambition to collate and release such data on a regular basis. Much longer and even Cipfa will be faster with library statistics!

There has also been a FOI submitted about the dataset by Ian Clark and Cilip. The Cilip one was dismissed as Nick Poole explains:

So we have a situation where both the Chair and a member of the Taskforce are being ignored and stonewalled. Also makes you wonder what the DCMS definition of ‘soon’ is as it appears to be a substantially different one to what most other people would accept!

Given the delay and the suspicion that the data will have been manipulated to put a positive spin on it I believe that the raw data should also be published to allow the public to make their own assessment (re: open data below).

The SCL have an important part to play in this as the information comes from SCL members and Heads of Service. In fact it would be an easy task for SCL to gather and release the data themselves. Perhaps Neil McInnes and the SCL Executive can to take this forward.

Another body that could get involved is the APPG for Libraries and I’ve emailed Gill Furniss as Chair to ask them to do so.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Rob Wilson as Libraries Minister. I will be tweeting and emailing regularly to urge the dataset is published immediately. That said, Rob Wilson has shown an almost contemptuous silence when it comes to answering difficult questions about libraries.

Therefore, I have decided to keep tweeting to Rob Wilson until the information is released or until he blocks me. I invite all interested parties to do the same.

If anyone has actually had a actual reply from Rob Wilson I would be interested in knowing so please do contact me.

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Post

Data matters because it helps to form evidence and evidence informs the truth. This has become increasingly important in a world in which post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news have become mainstream topics. Libraries have a important role to play in ensuring public access to trusted information sources, promoting information and media literacy, and where possible, encouraging users to think critically about the types of information and news available to them.

However, before boasting too much about our role in this area we need to set our house in order and collect, collate, and publish reliable data about libraries themselves. Unfortunately, the last seven years have highlighted the difficulty in providing accurate and comprehensive data regarding the depth and breadth of changes to the library network. This has allowed many councils and certainly many politicians to play loose and fast with the truth about libraries; some out of ignorance but others with the aim of furthering a political agenda. This in itself is a form of ‘fake news’.

So step forward the Libraries Taskforce, who are running a range of workshops with the aim:

“The core dataset is intended to be a series of data which all library services will, collect, use and publish. The plan is to have a consistent dataset which can be used to help inform and improve local library service delivery, as well as being used for advocacy purposes at local and national level…”

And there is certainly an urgent need for reliable, objective statistics for libraries. Ed Vaizey deliberately refused to collect data so he could continue to claim, quite wrongly, that there was no crisis in libraries, and ignore the claims by campaigners regarding closures and reductions to services. This led him to publish risible and misleading ‘desk-top’ research in an attempt to refute such claims. Make no mistake this was a deliberate act of obfuscation by the then Minister.

Most data around libraries come from a cross-section of sources. Cipfa being the most reliable ‘official’ stats but also additional information from the Taking Part Survey, Public Library News, BBC, and variety of ad-hoc sources.

However, there was, and continues to be, no definitive evidence concerning library closures and creation of volunteer led libraries. So it was welcomed when the Libraries Taskforce announced that they would start developing a model data set to better understand the level of library provision within each local authority in England. The first workshop was held in  December 2015. As Kathy Settle stated:

“We believe that access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality.”

This was also followed up by a survey to SCL members and Heads of Service asking for information about the number and type of libraries in each area. In August 2016 it was announced that the data set would be published at the end of September and then in October it was announced that there would be a short delay in the publication but with the promise:

“Look out for a series of posts in the next few weeks. The first will point to the data set itself and share some early visualisations of the data.”

The weeks went by with no further announcements. Six months later we are still waiting. And yet the data has been gathered, collated, and no doubt relevant graphs and charts drawn up. So just what is the hold-up?

My assumption is that, as with everything associated with the Taskforce, they are subject to the self-interested political wrangling of its members, with no doubt one or another being particularly obstructive.

But here’s the conundrum; given the delay how can we trust the Taksforce in the gathering of data from the current workshops? Or is it perhaps they are looking to gather less contentious material to take our focus away from how politically unpalatable the first dataset is proving to be.

Ironically, I was at a recent Libraries Taskforce Sector Forum and attended a presentation on evidence-based, long-term and sustainable planning. One example was that of Newcastle Library Service which has adopted an open data approach:

“We are the custodians of this information, but it does not belong to us: it belongs to the citizens of Newcastle. And we need to give it back to them: freely, clearly, openly.”

You could use a similar argument for the data held by the Taskforce in that it belongs to everyone who uses libraries and should therefore be out in the public domain. If the issue is not one of politicking but capacity, if the Taskforce does not have the resources to fully collate and analyse the data, then they should simply release it. As Newcastle has found out:

“Just start publishing, it starts the conversation with data owners and data consumers and you will learn so much more this way.”

If we are to build a strong narrative on the value of libraries it needs to be underpinned by evidence and evidence needs to be supported by data.

With that in mind I encourage everyone to contact the Taskforce or individual members and urge them to release the data immediately. As always please keep such requests polite.

Contacts:
Rob Wilson: (Minister with responsibility for libraries)
Email: robwilson@parliament.uk
Twitter: @minforcivsoc or @robwilson_rdg

Paul Blantern (Chair of the Libraries Taskforce)
Email: pblantern@nrothamptonshire.gov.uk
Twitter @RosaSignum

DCMS: (FAO: Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS)
Email: enquiries@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @DCMSArts

Libraries Taskforce
Email: librariestaskforce@culture.gov.uk
Twitter: @LibTaskforce

The library profession also has direct input into the Taskforce in the form of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (Cilip) so please contact them and ask they request the dataset is released.

Members of the Taskforce (as stated on the website) are:

  • Dr Paul Blantern, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council and Chair of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Kathy Settle, Chief Executive of the Libraries Taskforce
  • Neil MacInnes, President of the Society of Chief Librarians (and Strategic Lead – Libraries, Galleries and Culture, Manchester City Council)
  • Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
  • Rebecca Cox, Principal Policy Advisor, LGA
  • Iain Varah, Chief Executive of Vision Redbridge Culture and Leisure Trust, and Immediate Past Chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association
  • Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
  • Brian Ashley, Director, Libraries, Arts Council England
  • Sue Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the Reading Agency
  • Felix Greaves, Deputy Director – Scientific and Strategic Information, Public Health England
  • Jane Ellison, Head of Creative Partnerships, BBC
  • Dominic Lake, Deputy Director of Arts, Libraries and Cultural Property, DCMS
  • Simon Richardson, Head of Libraries, DCMS

My Way

So it’s finally happened. Ed Vaizey, the longest serving Minister for Culture has finally left the building, or at least been asked to leave as part of the new Cabinet reshuffle. It would be unfair to blame Vaizey for the all the problems of the public library sector over the last six years. The overriding factor has been one of ideology; from austerity, to localism, to devolution. But the ex-minister was certainly a strong advocate for these policies and ensured that libraries became a poster-boy for DIY community services.

It would also be unfair to lay the blame at the feet of just Tory local authorities. Councillors of all hues have been keen to support and adopt both localism and devolution, sometimes as a pragmatic solution to budget cuts, but equally as a means of distributing power from central government. And Let’s not forget that Labour and LibDem councils have been just as quick to reduce library services and hand over to volunteers as their conservative counterparts. Equally, it could be argued that the profession had grown complacent with comfortable funding and cosy political links so was ill-prepared to respond to the severity of the public spending cuts agenda.

So how should we judge Ed Vaizey’s time in office? Certainly the SCL appears to have regarded him as a positive force for championing libraries as the following tweet shows:

I have to say my own view is not so charitable. This was a minister who refused to intervene in any library reductions whatsoever, and who despite having the resources of the DCMS at his disposal preferred to rely on desktop research to assess library closures. The government figure touted was totally at odds with both CIPFA, independent BBC research, and what the public could see happening to their local libraries. Incompetence or deliberate spin? Take your pick.

According to the BBC the last six years have seen:

  • 343 libraries closed. Of those, 132 were mobile services, while 207 were based in buildings (and there were four others, such as home delivery services)
  • The number of closures in England is higher than the government’s official estimate of 110 buildings shut
  • The number of paid staff in libraries fell from 31,977 in 2010 to 24,044 now, a drop of 7,933 (25%) for the 182 library authorities that provided comparable data
  • A further 174 libraries have been transferred to community groups, while 50 have been handed to external organisations to run. In some areas, such as Lincolnshire and Surrey, the move has led to legal challenges and protests from residents.

The BBC also estimated that a further 111 closures were planned, but since the research was published, I suspect the number is now far higher. This is alongside a funding reduction of £180 million since 2010.

Matt Hancock has replaced Ed Vaizey so it remains to be seen what stance he will take particularly in the light of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. Will he continue a non-interventionist approach or actually engage to slow down the rate of attrition?

Anyway, I shall end with a personal tribute to Ed (with apologies to Old Blue Eyes!)

(Click to enlarge)

Ed Vaizey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Papering Over The Cracks

After a bit of light hearted satire I welcome the Taskforce’s aim to establish a communications sub-group to promote more positive news around libraries and what they do. Specifically:

“The role of the group is to co-ordinate communications activity across the sector with a view to shifting the narrative on public libraries from one that is primarily focused on cuts, to one that shows a more balanced view.”

In the current environment of grinding public sector cuts any news about the value of libraries is to be supported. Although whether or not that ‘shows a more balanced view’ is open to debate. While welcoming the initiative I would argue that the real balance is tempering good news with the reality of the cuts. The danger otherwise is to simply present stories out of context and promote the view that despite the funding crisis ‘all is well’ and ‘aren’t library staff a wonderful bunch for carrying on’.

Such a ‘rose tinted’ approach would do the public library sector a disservice as we know from bitter experience that Ed Vaizey is a master of using rose-tinted stories to justify his own inaction around library closures.

Libraries do indeed accomplish wonderful things and quite rightly celebrate them: the Universal Offers, Libraries Change Lives, Summer Reading Challenge, Reading Ahead, and National Libraries Day, amongst many other programmes, not to mention all the wonderful regional and local initiatives. All of which are feted and promoted by the SCL, Cilip, ASCEL, Reading Agency, Arts Council, and libraries up and down the country.

The issue therefore becomes how will the establishment of a communications sub-group improve the message, or the understanding of the political paymasters, when years of the above bodies doing so hasn’t?

Even reports highlighting the societal, health, and economic benefits of libraries have so far failed to improve the narrative or protect funding for libraries. The information is out there but falling on ears deafened by the overwhelming roar of austerity and the pressure of providing adult social care.

David Lankes made a similar argument for the profession to take control of the narrative while at the same time recognising:

“… that budget cuts have been so deep, the political lack of understanding of public libraries so disconnected from the reality and, yes, the lack of leadership (structurally at least) so dysfunctional that to blame librarians for the failure to change into 3D community workshop engineering hi-tech wunderkinds is a bit much.  But that’s the challenge, my friends.  We need to convince the politicians that libraries are relevant to their goals and the public that libraries are places to be cherished (and not just with placards).  This may be very hard with some public-service hating anti-professional and deeply ideological politicians but there are other people out there and even the most dyed in the wool reactionary is not demonic.”

This is a legitimate argument and one the Taskforce is taking on board. But it’s not just about changing the narrative, such communication needs to underpin concrete action and improvement.

However, a positive narrative around libraries is going to be difficult to achieve when the reality is so grim. Even the BBC, which is represented on the Taskforce, have highlighted the extent of the cuts, including:

• 343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”
• 232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced
• 111 proposed for closure over the next year

The media coverage is to be welcomed as an opportunity to celebrate what is important about libraries and counter the misleading data over closures. Certainly, the BBC’s research and analysis is to be more trusted that Ed Vaizey’s notorious use of desk research to compile misleading data, despite having the full resources of the DCMS at hand. The Guardian newspaper has stated that libraries are facing the greatest crisis in their history.

So it becomes a difficult chronicle to challenge while at the same time treading the fine line between government dogma re: localism and devolution, and the expectations of the profession and campaigners.

Highlighting good news stories and ‘golden moments’ while important is unlikely to produce an epiphany regarding the value of libraries within government circles.

Libraries do need positive stories, positive reinforcement about their value, and the Taskforce are right to take this on. The dichotomy however is that such stories during a period of deep cuts and widespread cynicism regarding government policy on libraries could lead to a disconnect from the reality of the crisis and the accusation of misplaced Pollyannaism.

Or to put it another way; it’s one thing to want to change the décor but it’s another to merely paper over the cracks.

How High?

Although hardly surprising the statement from the SCL refusing to support the My Library By Right campaign is nevertheless galling to say the least. In fact the statement is incredibly disappointing to those wanting the SCL to show more leadership over library cuts:

“As the leaders and managers of library services across the country, the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) is committed to delivering library services which have real impact on local communities.

We developed the Universal Offers for Public Libraries – with partners like The Reading Agency – to enable the continued development of strong unifying core services, reflective of what people want from their library.

As a body largely comprising representation from local authorities, SCL recognises that it is for individuals and their local authorities to provide local responses to the My Library By Right campaign.

For its part, SCL continues its work on an ambitious programme of innovation to further develop and embed the Universal Offers; supporting our workforce to deliver vibrant library services; building national and local partnerships that enable library services to contribute to relevant policy agenda, particularly those around economic development and health and wellbeing and contributing to the evolution of the Libraries Taskforce.

SCL welcomes the opportunity to grow its relationship with CILIP, recognising the potential benefits for communities in working together to develop sustainable library services, delivered by an engaged and well supported library workforce.”

What this statement ignores is that as a body the SCL makes agreements and builds partnerships without expecting members to respond as individuals. So why should this issue be any different?

SCL have often claimed that as an apolitical organisation they have to remain neutral. Perhaps there are some who take such words at face value. However, despite such protestations, it’s difficult to see how they differ from the vision set out for libraries by the government and by extension the LGA, ACE and Libraries Taskforce: volunteer libraries, community hubs, trusts (which I support), and commercial partnerships (despite the quite dubious ethics of companies like Barclays), are all part and parcel of the SCL approach. What appears to be lacking, is any challenge by the SCL as to whether this is the right path for public libraries, rather than just following the political diktak of the day.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find out how the SCL operates. Their Twitter account states that it is a local government association made up of the senior librarian of each library authority. So it’s obvious where SCL’s inclinations lie. It appears the LGA says jump, the SCL asks ‘how high?’.

The claim to be apolitical would be more believable if it wasn’t for the fact that their actions support a pro-government agenda.

Ian Anstice has observed that the SCL amounts to a voluntary organisation of hundreds of equal members. Unfortunately, it seems that some are more equal than others with the Executive Committee apparently making all the decisions, without the need to refer back to the regions or individual members. By that I mean the decision not to support MLBR was taken by the Executive only. Surely such an important decision should have at least been referred back to members, even by a quick email vote.

Despite claiming to represent the views of members SCL has few aspects of a membership organisation. Yes the committee officers are elected but other than that it has no constitution, process for joining (other than being HoS), individual membership fees, or mechanisms whereby members are genuinely consulted and decisions made by consensus. It appears members are not able to put forward motions or to make binding policy.

The details of the annual conference are very low key, without any details on the SCL website. In fact members are only notified by email. Such lack of openness is totally at odds with the transparency of Cilip conferences and groups such as Speak Up for Libraries. Perhaps, this is done to stay under the radar of campaigners or because the programme reveals how integrated with the status quo the SCL is.

It appears the SCL is far from apolitical but is very much part of the establishment. No doubt this year Ed Vaizey, will be an honoured guest yet again! With SCL committee members clamouring to share a photo-opportunity with the minister.

An interesting item is that the Taskforce will be seeking feedback on its proposed ‘Ambition for Libraries’. It will be interesting to see the outline of such ambition. Whether or not it will be a genuine analysis of the current library crisis with robust solutions remains to be seen. Unfortunately, I suspect it will merely be a continuation of current government policy given dubious respectability by carrying SCL approval.

If you want more details of the conference don’t go to the SCL website as there aren’t any there! Although, if enough people ask they might just publish something.

While it must be recognised that the SCL does carry out some important work in the sector, the Universal Offers being a case in point, this in no way compensates for the damage done to the profession by their continuing support for policies designed to fragment and debase the public library network and devalue the work of paid staff.

They might be the ‘leaders’ of public libraries in a technical sense as individual HoS but as a body the SCL lacks the legitimacy to claim to represent the aspirations of the wider profession and workforce.

 

 

Bridging the Gap

I enjoyed attending the Speak Up for Libraries conference this year; meeting and talking to very passionate campaigners and library users about the importance of libraries. Nick Poole, Cilip CEO, started the conference off with a excellent welcome speech extolling the virtues and values of libraries, including welcoming David Cameron to the ranks of library campaigners after his intervention in Oxfordshire, to much laughter! More detailed notes of the conference can be found on Public Library News and the transcript of Nick’s speech on the Cilip website.

For many the main draw this year was the opportunity to listen to and question Paul Blantern and Kathy Settle of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. This was never going to be an easy ride for them and while not necessarily agreeing with all their views they mostly retained grace under fire from very understandably frustrated campaigners, with only the occasional flare up!

Paul Blantern had a prior engagement so arrived in the afternoon but credit to Kathy Settle who was around all day and took the opportunity to talk to many attendees.

Both Paul and Kathy made no disguise of the fact that the Taskforce is both limited in scope and influence and that they are a task and finish group. Given the time limited nature of such groups the emphasis of the Taskforce appears to be identifying trends in a national context, researching and sharing good practice (although that beggars the question who decides what good practice is?), and exploring potential alternative sources of funding that libraries can tap into. The other role of the group that Paul and Kathy were keen to reinforce was as a strong advocating voice to ministers and other national decision makers.

This is all very laudable but for some campaigners does not go far enough. The difficulty is one of expectation, with the Taskforce being perceived as having more influence and authority than it actually does. The most misleading misnomer is the use of the term ‘Leadership’ when in fact, at best, it’s more of a facilitating body. Able to talk to a wide variety of individuals, organisations and ministerial departments at both national and local level but without the ability to enforce adherence.

Given the limitations in both scope and power it is easy to argue that a genuine strategic leadership body is still very much lacking within public libraries nationally.

But then again this should not come as any surprise. William Sieghart’s report, despite claims to the contrary, was not actually that independent, as it’s difficult to reconcile the outcomes of the report with the feedback given by many individual campaigners and library bodies such as Cilip, ASCEL and the SCL.

Given the delay in publication and the amount of time sat in Ed Vaizey’s office many campaigners have long suspected  a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down recommendations that did not chime with government policy.

What we finally got was a report that recognised the challenges libraries faced but with solutions that were politically palatable to the current government. For example many submissions raised the issues of national library standards and the merging of library authorities. In its submission Cilip remarked:

“The focus on localism has been a barrier to the development of national standards that would support local delivery and identifying major economies of scale. The public library is a national brand and some elements of it can be delivered more effectively on a national scale.”

And:

“In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient.”

And yet both issues were noticeably absent in the report. Sieghart would have been well aware of these but either decided they would not be acceptable and dropped them as a matter of pragmatism or as a result of ministerial intervention.

Whether this was a pragmatic approach or political interference depends I suspect on your political outlook.

A similar conversation took place at the SUFL conference with the view from the Taskforce that neither issue would be acceptable to the LGA or ministers and incompatible with the trend towards greater localism and regional devolution.

Looking at the report Sieghart’s three main recommendations were:

  • The provision of a national digital resource for libraries, to be delivered in partnership with local authorities
  • The setting up of a task and finish force, led by local government, in partnership with other bodies involved in the library sector
  • The task force, to work with local authorities, to help them improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service, while encouraging, appropriate to each library, increased community involvement

Right from the outset the Taskforce was always meant to be subservient to the views of government and particularly the LGA . So, far from being ‘independent’, the report actually outlined a framework for the continuation of government policy.

This is again made clear in the recommendations concerning the oversight of the Taskforce, which he recommended:

“…will jointly report to Ministers and the Local Government Association. This partnership will foster and promote a new and dynamic way of working for libraries.”

Thus, the Taskforce was never intended to be an independent voice for libraries but rather a vehicle by which ministers and the LGA could drive forward their own vision for libraries. The composition of the Taskforce reflects established interests with calls to include campaigners and unions falling on deaf ears, leaving the only potential dissenting voice on the group being Cilip. 

Is it any wonder that many campaigners are suspicious of the Taskforce’s motives and view it as little more than a smokescreen for enabling government policy regardless?

However, it would be wrong to disregard the Taskforce altogether. Paul Blantern made the point that without their intervention libraries would have one less tank in the armoury. They are able to make representation to government and the LGA that individuals cannot. Equally, both Paul and Kathy indicated that they were happy to talk to individual councils and advise on the pros and cons of the different options available such as the viability and sustainability of volunteer libraries.

Another interesting point raised was the how the Taskforce operates behind the scenes. Paul mentioned a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith regarding the vital role libraries play in developing digital skills for Universal Credit. He indicated that the Taskforce could encourage funding for libraries that deliver services which benefit the DWP.

This would certainly find favour with many services who struggle to cope with the rising demand from job seekers. However, the success of such an approach can only be judged by how quickly such funding becomes available, if at all.

This leaves campaigners in somewhat of a conundrum. They can ignore the Taskforce and continue with outright opposition to government policy in the hope that a eventual change in administration will result in a better deal for libraries. Or they can accept the limitations of the Taskforce, that it will never be the leadership body they would like, but work together where interests coincide.

Whatever happens bridges need to be built on both sides whilst recognising that there are major differences in ideology and attitudes. Perhaps one small start would be for campaigners not to attack Paul Blantern, in his role as Chair of the Taskforce, over changes made in Northamptonshire . It’s hard for a CEO not to be defensive about his own authority. In return, perhaps Paul could refrain from holding his own library service up as an exemplar in recognition that many campaigners disagree with the changes he has made.

There are at least three more years of austerity and five years of the current government left. Campaigners, the Taskforce, and all interested bodies and organisation must try to work together, where circumstances and interests coincide, to ensure that even if library services don’t thrive they do at least survive.

What shape those library services will take over the next few years I’ll leave for another post.

 

 

 

Vote For Libraries

keep-calm-and-vote-libraries-Blue

Well, it’s here. After five years of austerity, attacks on public services, widening inequality, and of course the continuing decline of public libraries, the election is with us. During this time, according to Cipfa, there has been:

• The loss of 337 libraries
• Reduction of staff from 25,648 to 19,308
• Increase of volunteers from 15,894 to 35,813
(figures from the Guardian)

Added to which, 30-40% reduction in budgets, hollowing out of services, and deprofessionalisation. Let’s also not forget the high profile judicial reviews of Lincolnshire and the eye-watering percentage of libraries forced on reluctant communities by authorities such as Sheffield.

Despite all of this Ed Vaizey recently defended his handling of libraries and averred that the scale of library closures had been exaggerated. This view was quickly contested by the redoubtable Alan Gibbons, who has challenged Mr Vaizey to a public debate on the matter. While I would dearly love to see such a debate I hope the electorate passes a more compelling judgement and that Vaizey and his party are unceremoniously ejected from office

What makes the claim by Ed Vaizey so outlandish is that his own department, DCMS, does not keep track of library closures so he has no reliable figures to draw on other than those supplied by Cipfa, which he appears to have ignored. A more comprehensive and realistic estimation of library changes is provided by Public Library News.

One issue surrounding the election is the accusation of it being dull and that all the parties are the same. I absolutely disagree.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of disillusionment with the Westminster parties the smaller parties have a greater opportunity to influence both the results and aftermath of the election. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen but one thing is certain; we live in exciting, if somewhat bemusing political times.

Robert Peston, BBC economics editor, has written an excellent post around this theme and argues that this election really matters.

Although, libraries are not on the scale of the NHS or Education in terms of generating political headlines they are a valued and much loved service that the public genuinely cares about. Unfortunately, libraries and other public services cannot stand another 5 years of Tory government, whether propped-up by another party or not.

Everyone who cares about the survival of libraries: staff, campaigners, and users should think carefully when casting their vote. Give libraries a fighting chance of recovery by not electing those whose avowed aim is to continually shrink and undermine public services.

 

Labour and libraries: the shape of things to come

It’s official, the Shadow Culture Minister has confirmed that not only does he prefer a non-interventionist approach, that Labour will not legislate to protect public libraries, but volunteer libraries are also acceptable. In the interview Chris Bryant accuses the Government of a “dereliction of duty” but then states that he will do exactly the same.

So a hands-off, localism-centred, volunteer approach to libraries is the wrong path for the current government to pursue but if elected Mr Bryant will do precisely that. Only in politics would you get away with such blatant double-speak and expect the public to believe it! It’s a sad indication that some communities are so desperate to save their libraries that they do.

In response to a question. Mr Bryant said: “The last thing I think they want now is some know-it-all in Westminster telling everyone everywhere how to run local services”. Which seems a strong indication that, just like the current incumbent, Ed Vaizey, he will not intervene when local councils decide to decimate their library service.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise as it’s been pointed out that Chris Bryant refused to support campaigners in his own constituency when they fought successfully to save Rhydyfelin library from closure. As usual, while happy to criticise conservative library cuts Chris Bryant remains steadfastly silent when Labour councils do exactly the same.

What’s becoming apparent is that the Shadow Minister will not be drawn into a meaningful discussion about libraries. Many, including Voices for the Library, have tried but with no success. It seems nothing makes him go silent faster than being asked an opinion on libraries and he’s more comfortable pontificating inanely in the press than talking to those who genuinely know about the sector.

Many have an high expectation of Labour rolling back the devastating damages done to libraries. In the interview Chris Bryant gives lie to this hope. If elected it looks like it will be business as usual and rather than rescuing libraries it appears that what we get instead is an Ed Vaizey mark II; a swapping of tweedledum for tweedledee with only the colour of the political logo changed.