In a recent post, Challenge Accepted, I asked if there were any practical solutions, other than closures or handing libraries over to volunteers, that have not been considered. Many campaigners were kind enough to leave suggestions in the comments section but only one, Trevor Craig, put forward a number of alternatives (below).
Trevor writes his own blog Question Everything and I would like to thank him for offering another viewpoint and adding to the debate around volunteer managed libraries.
If anyone else would like to offer other suitable alternatives I would be happy to add as a post.
Alternatives to Volunteer Libraries
The rush to volunteer libraries, instigated by the feckless politicians and cheered on in some sections of the librarian profession still shocks and saddens me. From what I can gather over the years there has been a decline in the profession of librarian and while most people won’t know it the majority of branches outside the central ones, the libraries are ran by library managers and assistants. These library managers and assistants, the ones I’ve encountered anyway, do an amazing job. They keep the library running, organise all the other activities (rhyme time etc) and do the very vital outreach work into schools, playgroups and old peoples homes that get new young readers and help keep existing ones. Not to mention helping ensure that the very valuable space in the library can be used for other things when they library may not necessarily be open. They can and should be supported by value added volunteers. Contrary to what the authorities would have us believe, the library service is all about the buildings and the staff, a library needs both that can be accessible by all that desire to use it, not just those in the city centres. If a small library isn’t getting the book issues or the visiter numbers, then it shouldn’t become first in line for the cuts, it should be first in line for extra support and resource.
The library managers and assistants are not hugely paid, they don’t have charterships or funny letters after their names or go to all the endless courses and seminars to learn about the supposedly amazing exciting things happening in library world. The hacker spaces, 3D printers and all the other guff that the small branch and rural libraries haven’t got the space for and users like me couldn’t care less about.
I think a back to basics approach is what is required, and the SCL’s universal offers is a good framework for this but it cannot be delivered by volunteers and self service machines, both of which the users don’t like and arguably doesn’t actually save much money. When a library building is closed, if people have further to travel, inevitably you’re excluding people from the service as there are travel time and costs involved, or the user is simply to old and frail to make the journey.
So if we accept the premise that the library service has to be cut (which I don’t incidentally, but reality being what it is) then where should local authorities look to make savings?
The Hillingdon example was and has been ignored by the profession as a whole, as has the Tri-Borough arrangement in London that has saved money but maintained staffing in the libraries.
The future libraries report, another expensive bit of work said up to 25% savings could be made by service mergers. But there seems to be a stubborn refusal for common sense to break out.
There seems to be an endless list of reports researching into the public library service, mostly rubbish that has taken up lots of time and money and seems to only exist to kick the political can further down the road and give those at the top something to occupy their time. Some from special interest groups like Locality who are getting huge public funds to further an agenda, others also funded by taxpayers like the LGA who want the 1964 act abolished. If they had there way we’d end up with just the PFI super libraries and very little else.
The obvious answer to anyone that looks at the CIPFA returns is the huge gigantic elephant in the room of the service support costs. Obviously I’m more on top of the detail for the Oxfordshire data but most I’ve looked at it costs councils millions to support the library services. Its too much and the administrative burden could and should be shared with other authorities.
The 151 library authorities should be abolished and replaced with a smaller number of authorities along a similar line to police authorities, each having its regional support hub that provides the management and service support to a number of council library services. Millions and millions would be saved and they could stop sacking the people at the bottom of the profession who are in the market towns and villages at the coalface where the library is vitally important as for some its their only lifeline to the rest of world.
Of course there are huge obstacles to the above, an incompetent and uninterested minister, a profession that seems oblivious to its own impending demise with its upper echelons refusing to speak out about the reality of the crisis the library service is facing, whether its cowardice or the rise up the greasy pole that prevents this I don’t know. But their silence is deafening. I cannot see the above happening. Libraries are not considered sexy enough to gather the political will required. There’s always money around for shiny new things but for the library managers and the amazing libraries they run, it seems the money or the political will to change a hugely inefficient provision of service isn’t there.
The only way it could really happen is if there was some proper reform of local government, getting rid of the unnecessary middle tier and making all counties unitary authorities, then the service support hubs could be for all council services not just for libraries.
If the profession cannot get its will behind a radical and bold reorganisation and have less library authorities then all that will happen over time is the services will be outsources as most others in councils have and the big outsourcing providers will be the ones realising these back office savings not the taxpayer. The service will become even more distant and unaccountable that it is now. Sadly, as I’ve stated, nothing will be done, we’ll just drift along like we are now in decline, the councils will continue us with their sham consultations and the senior profession will continue to ignore the wishes of the users which they are supposed to serve.