Deeds, not more words – what Libraries really need

8th June, 2013 3:54 pm

Everybody loves a library. In politics at least, it is hard to find more than a handful of people with a word to say against them. But what libraries need now is deeds, not more words.

The most recent library love-in is a report from the Arts Council England entitled ‘The Library of the Future.’

It’s not a bad document – indeed much of what it says makes perfect sense. It is the culmination of a long process of consultation. It talks about libraries at the heart of their communities. It talks about making the most of digital technology. It talks about developing the skills of library workers.

It is hard to disagree with any of this. Indeed it treads a well-worn path – echoing large parts of Labour’s own recent report, as well as various others released over the past few years.

I too want to see libraries at the heart of their communities and serving them however they best can. That could mean better and more books, or it could mean any number of new, innovative, partnerships and co-locations, tailored to what its users need and want – everything from business incubators to baby rhyme-time.

I believe the potential of libraries is clear and achievable (indeed, in some places it’s already being done), and should be a priority at both a national and a local level. I’m seized by the value they offer, but while we talk about their wonderful potential, hundreds of libraries are being closed across the country.

CIPFA and the Public Library News website record that from April 2010 to April 2013, 439 library points were lost: 293 have either closed since then or are currently under threat – with the losses particularly concentrated in England. That is almost 16% of UK libraries closed or under threat in just three years, and many much more is yet to come.

That is the biggest threat to the library of the future, but the government has precious little to say about it. It is clearly easier to talk about the potential of libraries than it is to do something concrete to realise that potential – or even to just stop it being wasted.

Of course, the challenges are genuine and real – local authorities are having to deal with big cuts in their budgets imposed by David Cameron and savings have to be found. And while libraries are rightly a national as well as a local concern, they are first and foremost the responsibility of local authorities.

But there is much the government could be doing, and are not. They could be offering advice to councils considering major cuts, to help find ways to make savings while minimising closures.

They could put in place a clearer system for monitoring standards; that strikes a balance between avoiding bureaucratic constraint and the current approach that effectively makes a mockery of the government’s legal duty to oversee the service.

They could be leading the effort to create unified systems for IT, purchasing and loans – rather than relying on the fantasy that the 151 disparate library authorities will spontaneously do this on their own. And they could be actively facilitating the amalgamation of back-office services across authorities – a potentially major source of savings.

The possibilities for overlap between libraries and other services are substantial and under-used. The government could easily direct Whitehall departments to undertake a comprehensive review of opportunities for collaboration, to make the current ad-hoc and occasional cooperation a systematic effort.  And they could look beyond government to all the potential services libraries could offer and the partnerships they could forge with civil society and even private actors.

While they are at it, they could do more to actually realise the thought that libraries should be better recognised and compensated for these external services they provide. Libraries that (for example) give employment advice or dispense books on prescription are having a real impact which is often taken for granted. That surely has to change.

I should be clear: I am fully behind local leadership of library services, and given the scale of cuts I have great sympathy for the pressures local councillors are under. But that does not mean central government has no role.

Because libraries matter. They matter especially for the most excluded and vulnerable. The branches that are being lost are largely the small, local libraries that are located deep within their communities, and which are especially important in the poorest areas. The idea that they can be replaced by one mega-library three bus journeys away is fanciful. So does the idea that the poorest communities can take over these services as volunteers as easily as richer neighbourhoods can.

When you have a service which has future potential, but faces a present threat, the proper response is to fight tooth and nail to get it through the crisis as intact as possible. I’ve sometimes likened libraries to the railways: what the government has done is like lauding the enormous asset railways can be for local communities, and then standing by while the rails are sold off for scrap in response to a short-term funding crisis.

Actions speak louder than words. When it comes down to it, the government appear happy to see libraries sink or swim, knowing that individual local authorities are in a tight spot and that some poorer and more deprived communities will find it very difficult to take over libraries that are closing and run them on a voluntary basis.

That is not visionary: it is disingenuous, appalling short-sighted, and pathetically devoid of ambition. Libraries may have to adapt to survive and to realise their potential. But we need a government that actively tries to make that happen. Instead, all we have are words.

Dan Jarvis MP is a Shadow Culture Minister

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  • RubyMalvolio

    Better line from Labour Dan but you need be pushing those in your own party more. Gateshead and Newcastle are only a couple of miles away but have chosen to close libraries and hand them to volunteers sacking the low paid library assistants and managers rather than share the expensive back office costs. I hope that if you do keep this brief and Labour return to power we get deeds not words from you. As we have seen from Lazy Vaizey its easy to say the right thing in opposition, doing the right thing in once in power is to be avoided at all costs, regardless of how big a hypocrite it makes the minister.

  • RubyMalvolio

    Better line from Labour Dan but you need be pushing those in your own party more. Gateshead and Newcastle are only a couple of miles away but have chosen to close libraries and hand them to volunteers sacking the low paid library assistants and managers rather than share the expensive back office costs. I hope that if you do keep this brief and Labour return to power we get deeds not words from you. As we have seen from Lazy Vaizey its easy to say the right thing in opposition, doing the right thing in once in power is to be avoided at all costs, regardless of how big a hypocrite it makes a minister.

  • Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary()

  • TomFairfax

    Good article. Should have at least have one comment against it.

  • PaulHalsall

    As a working class kid (and my parents bought me books), Chorlton Library next to my school in Manchester, was where I learned almost everything I know. I knonw now I could get some of the stuff on the internet, but its not the same (although I spend hours on wikipedia).

    Attacks on libraries are just another form of Tory class war.

  • AlanGiles

    I think it is important for the continuing health of the Library service that they be regarded first and foremost for what they were originally designed for – the dissemination of knowledge, and providing materials to people unable to afford to buy expensive books, free, as they say, at the point of delivery.

    If libraries are to be regarded (as they increasingly are) as just another branch of entertainment, where TV tie in’s, cheap fiction and Hollywood blockbusters (are there such things these days?) , where children’s play areas and franchises of coffee shops hold sway, it might become much more difficult to justify public spending: we will find libraries being “sponsored” by MacDonalds or Costa Coffee, and more likely to be affected by corporate whims, thus we will see even more closing (I remember back in the 70s when it became the latest corporate wheeze for Wills tobacco to “sponsor” recordings of popular classical works on cheap labels (I think there was more than one Beethoven 5th and Schubert’s Unfinished on Music For Pleasure).

    Of course, in time the novelty wore off, and that might happen to libraries if we went down that road.

    They heyday of the tobacconist’s sponsored record lasted from about 1973 to the end of the LP era.

    It would be good if at least reference libraries remained areas where noise is discouraged, but alas, even there it is possible to hear tinny music pouring forth from somebodies headphones.

    • JoeDM

      Yes. That is the problem.

      A large proportion of the space in our local central library is now taken up by computers and rows of pop CD & DVD rentals. Most recently they installed a coffee bar in what was the silent reading room! I used to be a regular but so much of the book stock has been removed that I no longer bother use the library. In particular, I made great use of the excellent specialist music library, however, that too was also closed and turned into a childrens play area.

      I now look for cheap second-hand editions on Amazon. As far as I am concerned our library is no longer fit for purpose and could/shoiuld be closed down

  • crosland

    I disagree with AlanGiles as the libraries I know actually recognise that the likes of DVD hire etc are already past their sell by date. If Blockbuster can’t survive in the market place with its obvious advantages, libraries won’t, and certainly not against the likes of Lovefilm and other trading innovations.

    Education tie-in’s are the key to most libraries, and more so in disadvantaged areas, but the view that other income generating areas like coffee bars somehow undermines libraries lacks credibility. If you go into a bookstore in the high street you expect certain things and modernising from the ‘shush’ mentality of the past is no bad thing.

    Amazon and other online retail options mean that books are much cheaper than in the past and this is one of a number of reasons for the decline in many areas of library use.

    Trying to pretend that this isn’t the case is where you will often find libraries being closed.

    In my area, the council (labour-run) has not only kept all its libraries open it has refurbished a former retail area (a market hall) into a new library, which has seen its footfall go up by over a third from the former location which was poorly sited and past its sell by date. Until the new one opened the other remained – so no loss in service there.

    Our council has also ensured all its libraries are WI-FI recognising that younger users want that option – and not expect to sit in rows of PC’s like obedient drones.
    Self-service machines mean you can stack ten books up and check them in and out without waiting and the staff who used to sit behind counters can help their users more with the skills they have as professional librarians, rather than acting like a shop assistant, dutifully stamping publications in and out most of the day or restacking shelves, like in a supermarket. Developing the staff’s skills is easier as well, which is a key to developing this public service more.

    As for ‘sponsors’ – if carefully handled franchising is no great threat. We have a franchise for Starbucks in a number of our council outlets. We haven’t lost control of anything, as you are only renting in effect the brand. The surplus made though is a lot greater than if we marketed it as a ‘council coffee shop’, which just invokes an image of a canteen. That surplus then goes towards the cost of the wider service,
    which includes the library service.
    Libraries can and must be helped forward through these difficult times and I look forward to a renaissance of libraries under even an austerity labour government.
    Incidentally, our authority responded to the scrapping of standards nationally by the tories, by adopting standards that library professionals will welcome as are many other labour led areas. Unfortunately many coalition led areas have just seen the current climate as an opportunity to hack away at libraries – something that in the longer term they may come to regret.

  • What crap from the party who betrayed the southern working class and started closing school and public libraries. A member of a real Trade Union – Society of Authors.

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