Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity

Batman library

This week’s offering of snarky reputational suicide is brought to you by the letter ‘A’: I have been mostly thinking about Advocacy and Austerity, and here is an unfeasibly large blog piece about it.

There are multiple inputs into this, but somewhat prompted by my engagement with the MOOC currently running from University of Toronto, ‘Library Advocacy unshushed‘. This is a well-designed example of a MOOC in the LIS field and well worth checking out if you haven’t done so.

I agree with a great deal of what is being articulated regarding the principles and means of advocating for libraries, and for making explicit the value that libraries have for to the community, and for individual library users. It is laying out the importance of being able to demonstrate value to decision makers and funders who have ultimate political control of library service provision. The objective is to ensure that these decision-makers are thoroughly convinced, and have ample evidence, that libraries are an essential and valuable contributor to their agendas, thus assuring their ongoing support and allocation of funding for library services. This is all good stuff.

However.

I am reading and thinking about all this with acute awareness of what is taking place in the UK context. For those who might be reading this from outside the UK and are not aware of what is happening, we are experiencing an increasing avalanche of budget cuts from central government to the local authorities who have a statutory duty to provide public library services, along with many other public services, in their areas of jurisdiction. In simple terms, the budgets they are being given are so reduced that it is not possible to make the money available cover the cost of services that they are required to provide. The current government has told us that funding will continue to be reduced for several years to come. Local authorities have already cut services and costs to the bone ( and below it) and there is little in the way of “efficiency savings” left to be made. This situation is prompting massive cuts to levels of service delivery in all kinds of ways. In the public library sector, we are seeing week on week announcements regarding proposals to close public libraries, get rid of library staff, turn libraries over to be “run by the community” (meaning by non-professional volunteers in most cases), to replace what would have been salaried posts by volunteers, and to outsource library provision to for-profit commercial providers.  At the time of writing, here is an assessment of what has been lost in terms of libraries being turned over to non-professional volunteer-led operations: http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/about-public-libraries-news/list-of-uk-volunteer-run-libraries   And the running tally of closures and losses from Public Library News

The “Austerity Agenda” is unremittingly portrayed by government and the majority of the media as an unavoidable and “necessary” response to the UK’s overall budget deficit. The perception is cultivated by repetition that there is no alternative to the cuts if we are going to balance the books and “get the UK back on track” in economic terms. I am not going to go into the detail of this here, other than to say that I, and others, believe that the Austerity Agenda is being prosecuted as an act of intentional socio-economic policy and driven by political ideology rather than “necessity”. It is a smoke screen that is being used to justify and obscure the real political agenda which is to dismantle the public sector and open up as much as possible of what has been traditionally funded and run by the state to market forces and to be delivered (if at all) by for-profit providers. It is the ideology and accompanying world-view of neoliberalism.

In this prevailing and dominant ideological context I believe we face some problems with thinking about advocating for libraries in the terms outlined above. There are three presuppositions embedded in the “demonstrate value to decision makers” approach:

1) That the overarching policy agenda of decision makers is *potentially* benign, or at least neutral, in regard to public libraries (and in other broader socio-economic matters) rather than actively hostile

2) That decision makers can be rationally persuaded that “libraries are valuable” in response to a compelling evidence-base presented to them

3) That, once they are persuaded, they will make funding available for libraries and seek to protect services.

I have some problems with these presuppositions.

It seems to me that many of my colleagues in the profession, and some of those fighting locally to save their libraries, do not fully understand the objectives of the government, or its end game of dismantling the public sector which includes public library services as part of that agenda. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is the flip side of the coin which has ‘Small (No) State’ on the reverse.

As far as can be discerned from the rare public pronouncements of the current and utterly dysfunctional DCMS Minister Ed Vaizey, if there is a view on what “the future of libraries” is to be, it is as co-located delivery points for a range of local services. This is not about libraries as libraries. Rather, it is about rationalisation of the cost of services delivery. It seeks to exploit the physical assets of library buildings by centralising frontline service points in one place as far as possible. Librarians will have to become generalist service point workers, able to deal with “customers” and users of multiple services. The idea of locating some form of Police contact point has also been seriously mooted. This OUGHT to raise all kinds of concerns. Fundamentally, this concept of what Ed Vaizey and co mean when they talk about a library being a “community hub” is NOT about the real work of libraries at all. It will actually diminish and compromise the capacity for that real work to be conducted properly.

Overarching all of this is the desire to offload and outsource as much of the public sector management and fiscal responsibility for providing a statutory library service as possible, and ultimately to let the blind idol of “The Market” decide what and how any future services are to be run (if at all). This is a core underlying principle that motivates and shapes policy and the current inaction, disinterest and lack of concern displayed by Ed Vaizey and others in government.

We should understand, therefore, that there is an ideological and conceptual disconnect between the aims and objectives of government policy and the real work and missions of libraries and librarians. When we seek to advocate for libraries it has to be with a sober recognition of this reality and the implications of this very clear policy agenda from the government.

One of the principles that has been articulated regarding library advocacy is that advocacy should be seeking to align the mission of libraries with the agenda of decision makers. Can you see what is wrong with this picture in the UK context? When the agenda of decision makers, at least at national government level, is actively HOSTILE to libraries, how exactly are you meant to “align” with that? To do so is to facilitate the profession’s own disassembly and destruction.  In the context of a legal trial it is possible for the presiding judge to decalare that a particular witness is “hostile”, meaning that in the judge’s assessment the evidence the witness will bring cannot be trusted to be accurate and should be considered to be possibly false, biased and prejudicial to the person on trial.   I believe in our current situation the library profession at large should be declaring the policy and actions of the government to be hostile and similarly proceed with due caution.

Further problems arise from the view of certain prominent sections of our profession regarding the desirability of “neutrality” with regard to how we engage and interact with decision makers and the political sphere in which we seek to work. This, to me, is a naive and foolish stance to take, ESPECIALLY in the present political climate. The policies of government are not benign or neutral, and at a certain point (one far back in the game as far as I am concerned) we CANNOT attempt to deal with what is happening as though neutrality is possible. As I have said previously in other writings, quoting Desmond Tutu, to be “neutral” in situations of injustice is in fact to side with the oppressor. We should also acknowledge that this isn’t just about libraries. The Austerity Agenda is punitively targeting and removing services that should support the weakest, the sickest, the poorest and those least able to fend for themselves in our society. These are often also the people who need and use library services the most. There are real people with real lives who are having the support mechanisms to sustain them taken away piece by piece. In this dystopian vision of “no such thing as society” that the neoliberal ideal seeks to impose, I, for one, do NOT wish to be “aligning” myself, or the work I and my colleagues might do, with this toxic and anti-human agenda, or help to facilitate it. Taking things out to an extreme level, to make a point: would it have been a “Good Thing” to align our services with (for example) the Nazi administration and its policy objectives? There is – or should be – a point when we recognise that the VALUES that underlie librarianship (and indeed, basic humanity) should cause us to ask critical questions about the policy agendas we are dealing with, and then challenge and actively resist them.

A clear weakness of the appropriateness for the present UK context of the advocacy approach being articulated is that it is a long term strategy. The approach requires librarians and library supporters to build long term, trusted relationships with decision makers and influencers. I agree that this is a Good Thing. However, in light of the present rolling devastation that is wrecking the public library service we simply do not have time for this. I am not saying do not attempt it, or that it is of itself wrong. I am merely observing that, at the rate libraries are being closed, outsourced and turned over to volunteers, we do not have the luxury of time to develop these trusted relationships. returning to my earlier point, I also think that in many cases it is naive and an exercise in futility to imagine that developing such a relationship is even possible, given the very clear ideological agenda of some of the key decision and policy makers in both national and local government.

In the present climate, where services are immediately and imminently under threat of extinction, in those instances I do not see any alternative other than what has been termed “protest advocacy”. There is not time to think in terms of “changing the narrative”, or “building relationships”. Libraries do not need more or even better advocacy: they need actual money to be available in local authority budgets which have been cut to impossibly low levels. They need to be nurtured and sustained at the level of national and local policy by people who are not driven by neoliberal ideology. On the level of our whole society, it needs ALL of us to reflect long and hard on whether we want to continue to allow our lives and those of our communities to be directed by values that see no worth in anything other than its monetary value or ability to generate income.

If we do that maybe we can collectively start to find some real answers.

(Addendum:  May I recommend you also read the blog on Infoism.co.uk by @ijclark Why “better advocacy” won’t make any difference… which tackles similar territory and develops some key points in more incisive detail than I did in this effort. )

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4 thoughts on “Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity

  1. Wendy Newman

    Thanks for this thoughtful posting on library advocacy and the approach of the MOOC. In common with colleagues around the world, I must say I find the UK situation heartbreaking. We know this can happen anywhere, and we are all with you. Just a couple of thoughts, as briefly as I can inject here. The UK situation exemplifies some classic advocacy challenges, e.g., any potential strategic alignment with a decision-maker agenda that is at odds with our own values and aspirations; any potential relationship development with leaders and decision-makers whose goals are also fundamentally at odds. Of course the agenda alignment has to be highly selective (Our USA school library colleagues and the over-use of test scores as measures of school effectiveness come to mind. I’d guess that most school library supporters disagree with the fixation on test scores, but they do point out to the decision-makers that good school libraries are associated with higher test scores. They engage other advocates to deliver that message as well.) In such situations, we librarians may not always be the best advocates. You have engaged many prominent UK authors in the cause of libraries and the communities they serve. How can the base of advocates be broadened still further? Are there more business leaders who can articulate the relationship between literacy and prosperity, any additional public figures with wide credibility who speak compellingly across political divides on the importance of newcomer welcome and skill development? Do we have relationships in place with such potential spokespeople, such that they know the cause well, because we’ve developed relationships with them, and we’ve interpreted the assets of libraries and librarians to them, in their terms? If not, there’s more work to be done. And yes, sometimes we must protest. But if the library movement advocates solely in protest mode, it will not have the critical mass necessary to be heard above the din in this contentious environment. We have to ask ourselves: is what we are doing actually working? If it isn’t, let’s review the evidence as dispassionately as we can, and consider all the options that have potential in our own environments. Libraries are worth it, because our communities are worth it. Wishing you all courage and persistence in this essential work. Wendy Newman, Library Advocacy Unshushed MOOC.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Great post on the state of British libraries | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  3. Pingback: Think, act and vote small! | Leon's Library Blog

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