Librarians are up against a philistine government whose tactic seems to be death by a thousand reviews. But the professionals are resisting…
CILIP, the professional organisation for librarians, has launched a manifesto for libraries. It sets out how local and national government should support the public library service, insists that the provision of school libraries with skilled, qualified staff should be mandatory, and puts forward the profession’s view on issues such as copyright, public health information and the preservation of digital materials.
CILIP’s manifesto comes at a time when libraries are coming under increasing attack. Unison, one of the main trade unions organising public library staff, held a people’s inquiry into the state of Britain’s public library service in February. The inquiry heard the minister who currently holds the library portfolio hint that the government intends to erode the statutory basis for free public libraries.
The event took place as library cuts and closures reached a level not known since the period of the Thatcher government. In the Wirral, library workers and local people, with support from many authors, beat off an attempt by the local council to close eleven libraries, forcing a public inquiry into whether Wirral council was in breach of its statutory duty under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. The campaign ended in victory when the inquiry concluded last October that the closures were unacceptable and forced the council to climb down.
A similar campaign in Swindon caused disarray among the councillors who tried to close down the Old Town library, and had not bargained for the determined campaign that resulted.
Elsewhere, cuts and closures have been proposed or carried out in Belfast, Bristol, Buckinghamshire, Croydon, Denbighshire, Doncaster, Hampshire, Somerset and Southampton. As well as branch closures and cuts to book funds and opening hours, there is a concerted effort to get volunteers to take on jobs done by library workers, as communities are exhorted to take branches out of local authority control and run them themselves.
Still open: the Central Library in St Peter’s Square, Manchester.|
Privatisation, which library workers thought they had beaten off in the early 90s, is back and no new library building can be completed without selling it and its assets to a private partner under a PFI deal.
As public libraries develop digital services, councils take advantage of the opportunity to charge, undermining the principle of free access. The well-stocked reference library that was one of the glories of the system has been replaced by digital reference collections. Other special services, such as music libraries, offering sheet music, scores and recorded music in a variety of formats, are replaced with small racks of CDs.
Filling the gap?
As the government makes 25 per cent cuts in adult education funding in further education colleges, public libraries are expected to fill the gap by supporting “informal learning”.
In the structure of local government, libraries have been absorbed into large directorates, headed by career local government managers rather than the qualified librarians who would have been Borough or County Librarians in the past. Where such posts survive, councils have frequently appointed candidates without a professional qualification to oversee services.
So alarmed was CILIP that it commissioned a report into whether 10 English public library authorities could continue to provide a professional level of service following their restructurings. CILIP was trying to reassert the place of professionalism in public library services.
In the capital, the London Libraries Change Programme proposes a 10 per cent cut to the staff in the libraries of the 32 boroughs, a target very precisely identified as 375 jobs.
School libraries too are under attack. Qualified librarians are sacked and the duties of running the library handed to teaching assistants. The School Library Association and CILIP recently organised a petition to make it obligatory for every school to have a library, to which the government response was that it had “no plans” to do so.
The public library system, free and open to all, was one of the outstanding achievements of the working class in the mid-19th century. Then there was no statutory duty on a council to provide a service: councils had the discretion to provide libraries, and the power to raise a penny rate if they wished, a procedure known as adopting the act. Bitter battles were fought in localities to force councils to adopt the act, against fierce opposition from those implacably opposed to culture and intellect.
The 1964 Act is one of our post-war victories, like the NHS. It was slow in gestation. Its intellectual roots lie in the McColvin Report, published in 1942, which set out a blueprint for post-war reconstruction of the library service, and the Bourdillon Standards of 1962, which set out the basic requirements for an efficient public library.
Compare that mature and slow progress towards a comprehensive system with the plethora of reviews in the past ten years, with little to show for them. Under a succession of junior ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), some even holding the portfolio twice in their expenses-fuelled journeys through the career jungle of the modern Labour Party, initiative followed initiative as season followed season.
The latest, entitled Empower, Inform, Enrich (by coincidence the slogan of a major credit reference agency) is a glossy document. It contains 28 “essays” about public libraries from various would-be celebrities, including some who should have known better.
The essays range in tone from the trite and obvious to the ill informed and stupid. It is light on any real detail of how the public library service could continue to develop to meet the nation’s needs for a comprehensive service that supports people’s educational and recreational needs, that puts every reader in touch with the documentary record of all human knowledge and imagination.
Consider this paper chase: in 1998, Annual Library Plans were launched; every public library authority had to draw one up, based on a centrally designed template. Later in 1998, devolution gave responsibility for libraries in Scotland and Wales to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In 2001, Public Library Standards were launched, and the following year Public Library Position Statements replaced the Library Plans. In 2002, the Audit Commission published a report, Building Better Library Services, and the following year the DCMS published Framework for the Future. In 2004 Public Library Service Standards (10) replaced both the previous standards and the position statements.
In 2009 there were two reviews running simultaneously, the so-called Burnham Review and one by the All Party Parliamentary Group on libraries.
Libraries had the distinction of being the subject of two Culture, Media and Sport Committee reports, one in 2000 and one in 2005. The second reported that the bedrock of the service was under threat and showed a better grasp of the issues than some reports produced by senior members of the profession.
Naturally a series of quangos with fancy names have come and gone: first the Library and Information Commission, later to become Resource, which then re-branded itself as Re:Source (how much did that colon cost?) and then the Museums Libraries and Archives council. That council is now withering on the vine. Its offices have been moved to Birmingham from London and its regional networks dismantled.
This is no time for diversion, such as the infantile side-swipes at library schools in Unison’s response to Enrich, Empower, Inform, or the attempts to turn a campaign for the future of the service into one about the modish non-issue of workplace bullying.
There is much to be done to reassert professionalism and maintain the service as the pioneers of the 19th century saw it, with the benefits of the wealth of electronic resources that could supplement book collections. CILIP’s manifesto, if library workers and users make it a reality, could be the first step.