Public libraries are vital to local communities – Labour must fight to defend them

Libraries are being decimated by cuts, privatisation, de-skilling and a shift to ‘volunteerism’ and 'generalism'. But those working in them are being told to deny there’s a crisis.

Alan Wylie
27 April 2018

Image: "Children's Section", Flickr/Jason, Creative Commons.

Back in 2016, when I addressed a “Speak up for Libraries” lobby of parliament, there was already a crisis in public libraries. I highlighted how 8,000 library workers had lost their jobs. But it’s getting worse, the Library and Information Association (CILIP) and campaigners put the figure at nearer 10,000 library workers lost since 2010. According to data published by CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) there are 650 fewer libraries in the UK than in 2009/10. We also have over 500 volunteer-led ‘libraries’. In fact, we now have more volunteers ‘working’ in public libraries than paid staff. Even by 2013, there were 33,808 volunteers working in libraries, an increase of 44.5% in 2 years.

Children’s library services have been particularly badly hit. Forthcoming research by Robertson and McMenemy from Strathclyde University shortly to be published by the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science also shows that “there has been a significant downward trend in staff, spending, and opening hours across children’s public library services in England between 2010 and 2016. The research found that there has indeed been hollowing out of children’s library services. On average, specialist staff have been cut by 40%, children’s book budgets by 23%, and opening hours by 11%. The literature suggests that this is coupled with a rise in closures, community run and outsourced libraries, and volunteering.”

And the trends are getting worse, with more cuts likely in Bristol, Northamptonshire and a £950k cut proposed for Bradford).

Volunteers aren’t the only way library staff and library culture is being decimated. We see the creation of service centre ‘hubs’ which often means shoehorning other cut services in with libraries which can lead to a loss of dedicated library space, stock and staff.

There’s also a worrying trend towards ‘self-service’ in libraries to save money on staff (never mind concerns about their use contributing to loneliness and social isolation). Some councils (Peterborough and Barnet for example ) are taking this idea to its extreme providing “staffless libraries” for some or all of their hours – even though such a policy means denying access to under 18s. There have been fightbacks against ‘staffless libraries’ in Ireland and Canada, but so far, little opposition in the UK.

Derbyshire is a good example of the shocking cuts and their impact on local library services. Council officials are recommending retaining 25 libraries under direct county council control but passing 20 over to community groups, cutting £1.6 million. Community groups would also be given the responsibility of running the county’s two remaining mobile library vans, cutting £200,000. Funding for book and DVD purchasing is to be reduced by nearly 20% (£140,000). And the Derby Telegraph also reports that the council plans to “move more of its libraries to “self-service” under a “smart libraries” scheme. The smart library approach allows users to enter locked buildings using their membership card and a code, to borrow books and log on to the internet without staff being present.”

As well as handing libraries over to volunteers, councils are finding a variety of other ways to hand responsibility over to someone else. This could be a so-called ‘mutual’ as already underway in Devon, York, Nottinghamshire & Suffolk, and planned in Hertfordshire and elsewhere. The mutual model, Unison has suggested, is a smokescreen for privatisation.

Or it could be being handed over to an existing large third sector outsourcing organisation – like leisure centre operator GLL (who now run Bromley Libraries, where Unite members where recently out on strike), we even had 4 services run by the blacklisting firm Carillion until that firm crashed.

So who’s regulating this free-for-all?

We still don’t have any ‘Public Library Standards’ in England. We’ve got yet another Libraries Minister who won’t intervene to halt the cuts and closures and to enforce the 1964 Act. And there’s an ineffective distributive leadership model (DCMS, Arts Council England, Society of Chief Librarians & the Taskforce).

So where were the professional bodies in all this? Well the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) & the Libraries Taskforce (ex-Chair an outsourcing fundamentalist and ex-CEO of doomed Northamptonshire CC) signed partnerships with Barclays & Halifax to deliver IT training to library users. Campaigners opposed this move due to concerns about private interests invading public space & the banks involved being linked to the financial crash, data breaches and tax avoidance.

The SCL & Taskforce have also supported volunteer-led ‘Libraries’ culminating in the creation of a peer support network and a recent conference held in Sheffield, a city that has seen a drastic fall in library usage in its volunteer-led ‘libraries’!

This support for volunteer-led ‘libraries’ was seen by many as complicit with the government’s Localism agenda, and a kick in the teeth for campaigners, users and staff.

Campaigners were told to "innovate don't save” and urged to "adopt a positive narrative…if you keep saying libraries are in crisis then people will start to believe it"

But groups like Voices for the Library, Speak up for Libraries & the newer Radical Librarians Collective spoke out against the cuts and the closures. We spoke out against privatisation and commercialisation. And we were ridiculed and side-lined but we kept speaking out.

Hundreds of local campaign groups were formed and spoke up too, organising hundreds of marches and protests and union and community activists even managed to organise a national demo in 2016.

We gave evidence to government inquiries, wrote articles, gave media interviews & met with politicians & policy makers. But we knew it was mostly a waste of time, that soft-advocacy (“libraries are great and very well used”) wouldn't work against an ideological agenda to dismantle and offload the public sector and shrink the state. So we kept organising and speaking up.

We also, in 2012, opposed the decision to hand the developmental remit for libraries to the Arts Council. The decision has led to the shoehorning of libraries in with the arts and the creation of a competitive market for funding.

Public libraries have adopted the language of managerialism & neoliberalism, so we now have ‘Customer Service Assistants’ & library users/members are called ‘customers’. We speak of library business models and ‘enterprising libraries’.

Over the years this push back against the neoliberal zeitgeist has taken its toll with many of us burning out and many losing their jobs and libraries. The campaigning group I was very proud to be part of, Voices for the Library, has recently folded.

But it hasn't been a wasted effort. Without campaigners, protests and marches the situation would have been a lot worse and the debate would have been very one sided.

So is there any hope?

The good chance of a Corbyn led Labour government in the near future affords us an opportunity to influence policy which supports public libraries and the staff who work in them.

"But what about Labour councils like Lambeth, Lewisham & Sheffield that are cutting, closing, privatising and/or handing libraries over to volunteers?" I hear you ask.

We need to get Labour to develop a national policy and then use it to whip these and other councils into line and commit to upholding and strengthening the statutory basis of public libraries. Then we stand a chance of reversing/halting the damage.

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