(Image: ‘Library Closed’ by Tito Perez. Taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/titoperez/3437322060/ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
If you keep up with the talk in the library profession you will certainly have come across those who enthusiastically promote their particular vision of what “the future of libraries” is, or what it needs to be. Let me be clear at the outset: I am not someone who thinks that nothing needs to change, or that innovation is to be feared and resisted. Far from it. However, writing as I do from the UK context in which we are seeing the unprecedented and continual destruction of the public library service, I have a few observations and comments to make about some of “the future of libraries” perspective. I will also articulate some thoughts about the responses of “library leadership” to the current crisis.
I see a number of people pushing innovations such as 3D printing, making and hacking. I see others talking blithely about transforming public libraries into “vibrant community hubs”. Nothing wrong, necessarily, with these things in and of themselves (although precisely what is meant by “vibrant community hubs” needs some careful analysis and unpacking – but that’s another issue). Still others seem to have a platform that is based on being unremittingly tech-positive in getting excited about developments in computing and technology that will work some sort of magic for libraries and the profession.
What I do not generally see in any of the futurist perspectives is any real engagement with what is happening in the PRESENT – namely:
- The continual and ongoing culling of the numbers of public libraries being maintained by local authorities
- The downgrading of the scale and reach of surviving services
- The massive loss of professional posts
- The turning of services over to volunteer-led ventures with minimal or no professional involvement and highly problematic questions about ongoing viability and sustainability in terms of finance and service delivery
- A very clear overarching policy agenda from the present government that is actively seeking to transform the library sector via the impacts of austerity budgets on local authority spending and service provision, and by promoting (in England via the post-Sieghart Task Force) alternative models of service delivery and financing that encourage authorities to continue to divest and outsource
Yet, despite all of this, which is hardly being done in a corner or out of plain sight, I see the library futurists enthuse about their particular subjects as though none of this is happening. It mystifies me as to how they are able to do this, I have to be honest.
Perhaps it is that they have been able to gain some level of notoriety for the enthusiasm and hopefulness with which they articulate their visions? People want good news stories and to take hold of something that makes it seem that the future will be bright, progressive and expanding instead of retracting and problematic. Maybe it is preferable for some in the profession to latch onto positive ideas that seem not to be rooted in the grinding reality of cuts, losses and de-professionalisation. Certainly, it seems that you can have quite a nice career doing the rounds promoting these things, so why would you want jeopardise that by talking things down by talking about the reality of the public library crisis?
Don’t get me wrong, I can imagine that 3D printing is fabulous, and that making and hacking might be great and worthy enterprises. I just do not comprehend the reason for what appears to be a massive disconnect between promoting these things and what is happening on the ground, to libraries, NOW. At the present rate the number of libraries left that anyone will be able to “hack”, or introduce maker spaces or a 3D printer to, is going to be a pitiful fraction of what existed before the present destruction started.
I don’t have a problem with anyone being enthusiastic about these things as possibly good enterprises in and of themselves. What I do baulk it is the proposition that these things will in some way usher in a fabulous shiny future for public libraries; or that the libraries and librarians are in some way “behind the times” or Luddite if they do not enthusiastically jump on the bandwagon; or that bringing these innovations into library services will “save libraries”. If not explicitly stated it seems to me these are often sub-texts to the narratives of the printer/maker/hacker advocates.
While these innovations might well be good things to have in the community they are not, to my mind, unproblematic additions or developments that seamlessly fit with existing (or remaining) library services. The drive to co-locate services in public libraries that require space and resource to accommodate them (whether making or other council and community services) is fundamentally about cost-saving for councils and providers. No one has set out with the idea that (for example) the BEST way to enhance the local public library service would be to set up some kind of Police desk there. Or for council residents to be able to pay bills or ask advice regarding council services. These things have a place, but I fundamentally question whether the BEST place for them is in the library. At least, insofar as we are actually thinking about what genuinely enhances and sustains proper library service provision. The more physical space that is allocated for co-located services within existing library premises, the less space is available for normal library functions. The more that councils drive their remaining ‘hubs’ towards being multi-functional service points, with generic multi-functional front-line service staff, the more dissipated and weak the “traditional” library functions will inevitably become.
My observation that there seems to be an apparently deliberate choice NOT to acknowledge the problems of the present crisis in public libraries is not limited to library futurists. If anything, I see a greater propensity to do this amongst those who are viewed to be leaders in some sense within the profession. I cannot believe and do not accept that those who are working in organisations such as CILIP, ACE, SCL (and I’d better say DCMS) and others do not fully understand what is happening, or why it is happening. Yet , and others, look in vain for any real sign of resistance to the agenda that is playing out. At least in public, beyond the “no confidence in Ed Vaizey” statement from CILIP or some while ago, there is scant evidence to suggest any kind of substantial “official” resistance or opposition to the swingeing cuts and depredations that are occurring across the UK. These bodies are represented on the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, charged with implementing the recommendations of the Sieghart report. Yet it is abundantly clear from interpreting the Terms of Reference set for the Task Force (documentation available here) that it will be continuing the government’s agenda of shrinking the public sector responsibility for libraries, and facilitating the offloading of services to volunteer, third sector, commercial or PPP models.
I would like to imagine that the representatives from CILIP and SCL in particular are raising HELL in their role on the Task Force about what is being executed. I have little confidence that this will be the case. I find it more credible to imagine that there might be greater interest in appearing to be cooperative and helpful in facilitating the agenda, rather than making waves and rocking the boat in a way which might bring their organisations into direct conflict with the government. After all, everyone is worried about protecting their own jobs these days…
I look and hope in vain for strong voices to arise from those who purport to be the professions leaders. To hear these voices one has to go the local and national campaigns to save and protect services under threat. More power to you! The deck is stacked against us. Sadly, I have no faith in any future government after the forthcoming election taking any different policy approach. The best that Chris Bryant would come up with when momentarily engaging on Twitter recently was that Labour would have a ministerial Chair for the Task Force. He has swerved and dodged any pronouncement about having any policies on protecting public libraries or reversing the cuts. I challenged him directly to tell me why I was wrong in saying that I saw no fundamental policy differentiation between Labour and the present government. He did not choose to respond to questions beign asked by myself and others, saying “I fear I will be unable to please you”. I think he is probably right on that one. Merely replacing the Chair of the Task Force with a Labour DCMS minister is FAR from any kind of adequate response.
So, it appears that there is a gaping black hole at the heart of “library leadership”. The DCMS will sit back and say “it’s not our responsibility – any cuts are down to those pesky councils”. The response of the DCMS to the Linconshire Library fiasco makes it abundantly clear that the Minister is unlikely to consider intervening in almost ANY library cuts scenario imaginable (short, perhaps, of a local authority saying it will not provide any library services at all). Ed Vaizey (or his successor) can sit back and watch the cuts fall and feel content that they can not be held directly responsible, and get a pat on the head from government for their contribution to cutting the public sector and the need to fund it. In light of this, there seems to be almost no point whatsoever in having any ministerial responsibility. Good grounds for job cuts and cost saving there, I would suggest.
At the professional level of “leadership” I will wait and hope that some semblance of radical consciousness and responsibility awakens amongst those who do have a platform and voice – and, indeed, a responsibility to the library workers and institutions they are meant to represent.
I am not very hopeful. Therefore it is down to ordinary library workers and citizens who love and value their libraries to organise in order to try and stem the tide.