The crisis in UK public libraries – A Beeching moment ?

As I write there is an impending #uklibchat scheduled for the coming week on Twitter. This is to facilitate discussion on  ‘What can we do about the crisis in public libraries?’   This will be an interesting one, given the environment we are currently in as a profession.

The publication of the Sieghart Report, and the impending work of the ‘Taskforce’ led by Dr Paul Blantern to deliver action on its recommendations has focussed attention from both within and without the sector.    The outcomes of this process may – or may not – have  substantial  consequences for the entire public library sector.   I have yet to put down my full thoughts about the contents of the Sieghart Report, and will not attempt to do so in this piece.   Suffice for now to say it is a mixed bag in my view.   In the main I believe the intentions of the Report are meant to be positive and supportive of libraries and their value in UK society.  There are many question marks about implications of some of the recommendations and practicalities of implementation but it is not a hostile document.

This, however, stands in marked contrast to the wider political and ideological context within which the Report and Taskforce exist, and in which public library services are trying to deliver and survive.   It seems abundantly clear to me that, as things stand, we are not dealing with a political agenda at national governmental level that is remotely interested or concerned with “the value of libraries” in the way that many librarians and library campaigners seek to present it.   I sometime get the impression that people believe something like “if only we can demonstrate the value of libraries clearly enough, politicians and councillors will suddenly see the light and protect and fund services properly”.

To me this is a delusional hope.  Ed Vaizey appears to have a long term commitment to pursuing a very particular model of “libraries as community hubs” (insofar as he has any  commitment to anything at all).   The cynical side of me wonders whether setting up the Sieghart Report and its follow-on Taskforce are merely useful ways to kick the whole subject into the long grass so that Mr Vaizey doesn’t have to do any actual work or think about it.  Chances are the next election will see him out of the post and into some more suitably relaxing position in his political career.  But I digress…

The ‘Big Society’ agenda is about reducing as much of the traditional state sector as possible, as fast as possible.   The “Austerity” programme is a fundamental tool for executing this objective.   The public library service , as part of the public sector, is fair game to be carved up, outsourced, or turned over to volunteers. It seems that pretty much anything goes as long as the end result is that responsibility for libraries passes away from the public sector model that we have had up till now.

Local government administrations responsible for running library services are faced with an impossible task.  With across the board budget cuts they cannot maintain services at pre-austerity levels, and there is an ever-growing list of councils “consulting” about reducing the number of libraries, cutting staff and budgets for libraries, or suggesting that they can be run on a  volunteer footing via some kind of community salvage operation (i.e. “SOME kind of service is better than losing it altogether”).   To some extent it is understandable that they might jump on any bandwagon that offers the possibility of reducing their spend on libraries as part of the overall nightmare they face.   With enthusiatic advocates for volunteerism as “the answer”  to this strand of their intractible problems, it’s not surprising so many are following that route.

It would seem that very few with postions of leadership ever challenge the default position that “Austerity” is somehow “inevitable” or “inescapable”.    It is blandly accepted that we have no choice but to live with cuts, reduced budgets and “having to make tough choices”.

In this environment I confess I have real pessimism about the context in which Dr Blantern’s Taskforce is expected to deliver results.    Unless there is a new, overarching political commitment to public libraries with ring-fenced funding ,  then I am not sure what can be done.   I may be wrong – and I hope I am – but it appears to me that the positive, supportive and hopeful signals that we might detect and extrapolate from Sieghart and discussion around the report are running counter to the prevailing trend of thought and policy in national and local government.   That trend is seemingly to be not that interested in the actual or potential value of libraries in the community.  It is purely about the bottom line and cutting costs – which inevitably means cutting libraries, staff and services, or pursuing a “community hub” model in which libraries are to transformed into utilitarian dispensaries of multiple co-located services (another vexed subject for another vexed blog).

Comparison has been made to the era in which Beeching devastated the railway network.   The majority of the lines which were closed have stayed closed. Some of those continue to be devastating losses to the transport infrastructure.  I think it no exaggeration to say that we are indeed facing a “Beeching moment” in the public library sector.   Short-term political ideology and budgetary constraints flowing from it are driving an agenda which is wreaking carnage.  The nature and extent of public library service provision is being reduced and cut in ways from which, in many places and communities, it may never recover.   Once the services have gone it is unlikely they will be coming back any time soon, if at all.

I hope that it isn’t too late to resist and reverse this toxic trend – and I sincerely hope that Dr Blantern’s Taskforce isn’t going to be party to “doing a Beeching” on us.

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