Under capitalism, libraries in the 21st century have, like every other indication of civilisation, been called into question...
Since people invented writing, they have made documents, and collections of those documents, to transmit ideas and knowledge to others, and preserve them for future use. The physical form of documents has changed, from clay tablet to papyrus, to the codex, to the printed book and the journal article, to electronic journals and books in recent years.
The British Library, London: jewel in the crown of Britain’s public library system.
Photo: Bikeworldtravel/ Shutterstock.com
Whatever their form, there have always been collections of documents, and around the larger collections scholars gathered, the first universities.
In the 21st century under capitalism, libraries have, like every other indication of civilisation, been called into question.
Across the country libraries have taken a beating as never before. In universities and colleges, the growth of electronic resources has been used speciously by vice-chancellors as an argument to remove the physical spaces libraries occupy (and turn them into something more lucrative).
In schools professional posts in secondary school libraries have been deleted or demoted. (There never were any in primary schools – why not?)
The catastrophic reorganisations of the NHS following the Health & Social Care Act, which came into law last year, threaten the future funding of libraries throughout the service. And at local level hospital closures and mergers lead to the closure of the libraries hosted there.
Commercial organisations, blind to anything but the balance sheet, gladly send to the skip the intellectual memory of the organisation.
For academic libraries, they have had to face not only cuts in funding, but huge increases in the cost of scholarly journals, that form the major part of their collections,
It was the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell who first spotted the potential of academic journals as money spinners. He noticed that the academics who write for them expect no fee from the journal – indeed they are required to publish to prove they are still research-active. The same academics, when not writing articles, will offer their services as peer reviewers and editorial board members, expecting no reward other than a plate of sandwiches at the editorial board meeting.
Since the academics are funded by the taxpayer through their salaries, and through mostly public funding in research grants, the only workers needed are those few involved in editing and the production process. Though the advent of the electronic journals should have reduced institutional subscription prices, instead they have continued to grow far ahead of inflation.
Some libraries have pinned their hopes on the open access movement, whereby journals make their content available freely, or authors deposit preprints in institutional repositories, but open access has yet to realise its promise.
But it is the public library, open to everyone since the 19th century, local yet part of a national network of inter-lending, which shows most clearly the nature of the barbarian attack.
At a national level, Museums Libraries and Archives (the MLA), the arms-length body that sat between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and did such national planning as there was, has been disbanded and libraries handed over to the Arts Council, or Arts Council England (ACE) as they are now known. Despite many fine words of assurance that this was their proper place, ACE dismantled the MLA’s structure of library advisers, and in November ACE cut its staff by a fifth, closed four of their nine regional offices and deleted the post of libraries director.
According to the authoritative Public Libraries News website, 324 library buildings and mobile libraries have been closed since April 2012, or are at risk of closure, while 201 service points were lost in the financial year 2011-2012.
That is to say nothing of the more insidious cuts to budgets, opening hours and staffing around the country which bring a slow rather than a quick death. Across London public libraries, for example, 562 full-time posts have been lost between 2007-8 and 2011-2012.
Among those currently affected are major British cities such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who propose a 40 per cent cut in the libraries budget over three years, planning to close or hand over to volunteers 10 out of their 18 libraries, and Sheffield who propose the same fate for 14 out of the 27 libraries in their system. In the past 3 years we have seen the London Borough of Brent close half its libraries, 6 out of a total of 12, while neighbouring Barnet is to sack 18 of its librarians, leaving a total professional establishment of 6.5 to run one of the biggest boroughs in the capital.
When tackled about closures, some councils and the government have pointed to newly opened “mega-libraries”, inevitably funded by Private Finance Initiative, such as the Birmingham Central Library.
But looking at the plans for 13 new or refurbished libraries from 2013 onwards, it is hard not to see these as vanity projects designed to allow government and councils to kid themselves that they’re doing something. And large, city centre libraries, while they are important parts of a system, can’t replace the other part of a public library system, the local, easily-accessible branch library.
Some authorities are looking at privatisation as an option. Private company John Laing has run Hounslow in west London for several years, and is now set to take over Croydon. The US firm LSSI has been making approaches to several local authorities, but seems, for the moment to have been scared off by the fear of adverse publicity.
Any number of self-appointed experts, consultants, crooks and charlatans are pontificating about how libraries need to change, ignoring that public libraries are probably the most innovative part of local government, the first to use computers on a wide scale, and the first to see the potential of the internet.
If anyone needed proof, look at e-books. As soon as e-books became available, public librarians knew this was something they wanted to offer to their readers, in addition to print lending. Over two-thirds of Britain’s library authorities now offer an e-lending service. But the publishers took fright and the largest ones acted in unison to embargo their titles from appearing in the aggregators’ lists from which public libraries choose their stock, just as publishers opposed the very idea of the public library in the 19th century. A DCMS enquiry into public library e-book lending is expected to report soon. Librarians have made it clear in their evidence that they expect to be able to lend e-books to their readers.
Some authorities have sought to secure the future by replacing professional librarians with volunteers. This deprofessionalisation seriously misreads the complexity of library work, caricatured by the ignorant in government as “stamping books”. In other cases, libraries have been sold off to “social enterprises”.
Some campaigners have welcomed these solutions, arguing that to have a library open, no matter how poor the service it offers, is better than no library at all; but it is questionable how long these “community” libraries, as they are styled (what library is not a community library, pray?) will survive. And how will they interact with other parts of the library network?
Scandalously, new entrants to the profession are told that, if they can’t find a paying post in a library, they should volunteer, in order to gain professional experience. Employers then have a professionally qualified and enthusiastic young librarian, without the nuisance of having to pay their salary.
But the volunteer, big society rhetoric was dealt a blow when that volunteering organisation par excellence, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, came denounced the use of volunteers as a “sticking plaster” approach and said it would lead to “the creation of a two-tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff”. They say it under-estimates the role skilled staff play “in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities”.
One library in North London, Friern Barnet, has been taken over by occupiers, who claim to be continuing to run it as a community library, and who claim to have stripped away the professional mystique of running a library. It is hard to see that there is any objective difference between this approach and that of the volunteer-run libraries. Both play into the localism, we-won’t-fund-it, run-it-yourself, approach.
The current statutory basis for public libraries, the Public Libraries and Museums Act, requires every local authority with library responsibilities to run a comprehensive and efficient service. Much ink has been spilt, and test cases taken, to define what comprehensive and efficient might mean.
Previous governments introduced library standards which, for all their faults, did offer some way of measuring them. Ed Vaizey, Britain’s current Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, is known to campaigners as “E-Vasive for his refusal to use the powers he has under the Act to compel local councils to restore cuts.
There are now signs from the Local Government Association that councils look to the government to release them from the burden of having to provide public libraries. Indeed, some council leaders already talk as if public library provision were optional rather than statutory.
Unison, the Library Campaign, CILIP (the professional organisation for librarians), authors, publishers and others have come together with library users in the Speak Up for Libraries campaign, to bring together everyone who values public libraries.
School librarians, teachers and others have been involved in the Shout about School Libraries campaign, which demands that school library provision be made obligatory.
Side by side with these, many local campaigns, wherever cuts have been threatened, whether in rural Gloucestershire or urban Lewisham, have shaken local councillors.
Sometimes we don’t know our own strength. Every announcement of Vaizey, of Hunt before he was packed off to Health, and of Miller (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Minister for Women and Equalities) contains some spin trying to project an impression that the government loves libraries and is fostering beneficial and needed “reform”.
These protestations are a reaction to widespread concern for the fate of public libraries. We know now, as well as we knew in 1850 when the first Public Libraries Act was passed in the teeth of fierce opposition from those who feared an educated, literate, working class, the value of public libraries to individuals and communities, for education, culture and recreation. ■