Having spent 15 years researching public libraries and trying to emphasise their contribution to education and society as a whole, you might expect that I’d be delighted at the good news that our public libraries are finally receiving the media attention and recognition they deserve? Sadly not.
The recent boon in media interest is of course linked to a large-scale BBC investigation into the “real” picture of library closures, staff redundancies and budget cuts which have taken place since 2010, the year in which UK Chancellor George Osborne “unveiled the biggest UK spending cuts for decades”.
I was one of a number of people interviewed as part of the investigation, and have been quoted in two depressingly entitled articles: one on how a quarter of staff jobs have been lost as hundreds of libraries close and another entitled “Libraries: the decline of a profession?”
The first article presented some stark statistics — based on an extensive series of Freedom of Information requests by the BBC — which revealed the extent of closures, planned closures and job losses, as well as the concurrent increase in community-run libraries — where the local authority hands over the management of a library service to a group of community volunteers — and volunteer staff.
Libraries aren’t over, they will just look different. A similar view was expressed by Elizabeth Elford of the Society of Chief Librarians, who observed “there will be fewer public libraries when we come out the other side, but they will be better and more innovative.” I sincerely hope that she is right, but I question whether the closure of so many public libraries could be characterised as a positive development.
Of course, not all libraries have “closed”. In addition to the 343 libraries no longer in existence since 2010, the BBC also reported that 232 libraries have been “transferred”, 174 of which have moved from council control to management by community groups (whether or not these should also be counted as “closures” remains a point for ongoing debate).
For Ian Stephens, chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board, it is testament “to how much people value their libraries that so many have volunteered to help keep them open.” This might well be true but it provides little comfort to those volunteers who would have preferred the library service to remain council run rather than being forced to fend for themselves without professional training or long-term council support.
Community-run libraries are also under no obligation to conform to council standards and, as I keep being told by people working in community-run libraries, they feel that they are in competition with other libraries in the city or county, and are certainly not connected to them as they originally thought they would be.
This would appear incongruous with the public library service so familiar to many of us, with one large central library providing the greatest range of resources, and a number of smaller branch libraries serving the different parts of the community. The community-run service, at least in its current form, does not appear to replicate this service, and, as the statistics show, we now have an utter lack of consistency of provision across towns and cities.
Volunteers have long supported library services by supplementing existing work — shelving, routine enquiry work, storytelling sessions, and so on — or by adding value to a service with more specialised skills, such as cultural awareness sessions from members of local minority ethnic communities. This is extremely valuable work, and in no sense devalues the existing service. Many of our students will work as volunteers in library services before coming on the masters programme, and it serves as excellent preparation for an information career.
However, some politicians and other commentators seem to forget that there is an important distinction between volunteers used to supplement an existing service, and volunteers either replacing the specialised roles of paid library staff, or working in “community-run” libraries. The second of these seemed at the time to relate very closely to the coalition government’s Big Society ideology, the impact of which is still being felt, particularly in terms of the ongoing drive for local authorities to make the most of ever-decreasing budgets. Certainly before 2010 the community-run library was a very rare phenomenon.
Last year I was told that public libraries — and, by association, any research into them — were “dead in the water”. No such demise has occurred, as I wrote in a blog last year. Nevertheless, the recent media coverage is a clear reminder that we cannot be complacent about the future of public libraries. These are very difficult times for these organisations and those who work in them, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.
People who have devoted their lives to supporting public libraries are now suggesting that we have gone past the point of no return. Yet there are still a huge number of individuals and organisations who still firmly believe in the role of the statutory public library service in a democratic society, and are working tirelessly to ensure that it remains.
To those fortunate individuals who appear not to have seen the extent of the contribution a public library makes to its community, I repeat a point made by David McMenemy, in his book The Public Library: “In all of the discourse around the diminishing use of public library services it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that many people within our communities continue to need the services they offer.”
Public library services remain one of the most significant and democratising assets within our communities and should not be sacrificed for economic or political expediency.