Reinvigorating the public library mission – David McMenemy (guest blog)

VftL are pleased to have received contributions from two academic heavyweights. The role of the public library, and the expertise of its personnel are two key threads in the current argument. We make no apology for opening up the debate – feel free to join in!

The first guest blog post comes from David McMenemy, Course Director for Infomation Studies at the University of Strathclyde.

Public libraries in the modern era are a public service in search of a renewed purpose. Decades of political tinkering and trying to shoe-horn the concept into a consumerist mind-set have simply failed. Indeed this mind-set now seems so ingrained in far too many of the public library great and good that it seems to me to be the most perilous time for public libraries in generations.

It is no accident that Voices for the Library is a grassroots initiative fuelled by the energy of new professionals in its beginnings. Too many of several generations of professional librarians have been apathetic about the collective responsibility we all have to advocate the mission of public libraries. Taking our eye off the ball in this has been an unforgiveable dereliction of our duty to society. For many professionals educated since the early 1980s they have no way of thinking outside of a consumerist box which accentuated the basest of motives for public services.

The choice agenda

The neoliberal mind-set across all three main political parties is obsessed with the mythology of choice. We are told that public libraries need to be more commercial in their look and feel because people can choose to use the same or similar services elsewhere. The mantra is that the market is all, and the market in access to knowledge means people will choose to go elsewhere if the public library does not give them what they want.

Except of course we know that the concept of choice in relation to the core services public libraries provide is complete tripe. Yet this has been the modus operandi for public librarians for over a decade. Services have been tweaked, added, or removed based on the fear that public libraries must compete with the choices people have for their leisure time. Have those evangelists for mediocrity any idea at all of why public libraries exist in the first place?

I am reminded of the late, great Jimmy Reid and his comments in a discussion with Kenneth Williams back in 1973 when he challenged him on the issue of choice. Reid argued that while we are all free to register our names to buy a Rolls Royce, few of us will be ever be able to make that a reality because we simply do not have the resources. This applies just as equally to the public library service; in the boom years having more disposable income meant many chose to buy their books, but this is not the same as borrowing them. Public libraries are there to provide people with access to what they cannot afford. For those people, they have no choice. If the library service chooses to fill its shelves with the populist to ensure high usage, it is at best a questionable use of public resources, and at worst complicity in keeping the aspirations of citizens in the gutter.

As Bob Usherwood argued in Equity and Excellence (2007), the result of a consumerist approach is quite simply a dumbed down service, obsessed with the quantity that can be leant rather that providing access to quality. Indeed the treatment Bob’s passionate missive received in in some quarters summarised for me how deep the problem actually is. Objectors to the neoliberal status quo are painted as old-fashioned, behind the times, not aware of the pressures of modern public management, etc. You simply do not need to listen, because the views are out of touch with reality. Such a control of discourse is antithetical to a profession that should always seek to question what is being implemented in its name, and the effects it will have on society and the profession. Being a professional means you are more than a mere foot soldier for your employer – it is your job to think deeply about what you practise, why you practise it, and what duty you have to society in doing so.

In all of this CILIP’s leadership can be challenged for its impact. Sadly the merger with the IIS took the collective eye off the ball for too long. I don’t doubt for a second the difficulty of keeping what are divergently different sectors happy under one umbrella, but the public library service remains the largest single sector of CILIP membership, and the most public facing. It is good to see CILIP over the past couple of years becoming more vociferous in its challenging of policy that is detrimental to the service.

One area where CILIP must begin to assert itself is in its organising of the Public Libraries Authority Conference. It is a conference that for years has been an appeasement opportunity to whatever government policy is flavour of the month. It has presented elected members and senior officers with an anti-public libraries mantra disguised as innovation and progress; de-skill, merge, embrace volunteers, dispense with old ways of doing things because they do not fit in with a choice agenda. The same voices consistently espousing the same tweaks of neoliberalism disguised as progress. That such voices can become the predominant ones at conferences organised by the professional body is a cause for concern for all of us. The phrase turkeys voting for Christmas seems apt both seasonally and metaphorically.

The future is for the young

In all of this it is the new entrants to the profession who can potentially offer a new vision for the service. It is not only in student fees that baby boomers have shafted the young; they are leaving their professions in such a state of disrepair and devoid of social mission that is a massive task for the professionals of the future to reinvigorate them.

So my plea for the new young professionals is simple: rip up the neoliberal rule book. Remember why you wanted to be a librarian, and write about it as much as you can on blogs, social media, and journals. Be passionate about public libraries and their importance for society. Be active in CILIP; join the special interest groups in huge numbers to challenge those who seek to derail them with their limited political outlooks.

The discourse currently being heard too frequently related to public libraries challenges us to be progressive and advocate public libraries fit for the 21st century. The reality is those voices are siren songs; they are politically motivated to dismantle, not to reinforce the public library mission.

I encourage the future of the profession to look to the past to understand the importance of high quality public libraries. Or if short of time, read some Bob Usherwood.


Usherwood, B. (2007) Equity and Excellence in the Public Library: Why Ignorance is Not our Heritage. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

13 thoughts on “Reinvigorating the public library mission – David McMenemy (guest blog)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Reinvigorating the public library mission – David McMenemy (guest blog) | Voices for the Library --

  2. Kathryn

    Hear, hear! The difficulty is that we have been driven by bean counters for so long. Trying to explain to someone (often from departments labelled “Value for Money” etc)who is only interested in ticking boxes, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, that a book about a serious issue, which has only been borrowed by a few children, is as much, if not more, valuable, than all the “Twilight” and “Fairies” issue fodder, is an impossible task. They don’t care what families from deprived areas get out of a simple activity like rhymetime – they just know what it costs in staff time. All they are interested in, is that which they can count! The impact of books on someone’s life is, to them, unmeasurable, and therefore of no “value”. I believe it was Einstein who said “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that countes can be counted”.
    Incidentally, this baby boomer is still passionate about libraries and making a difference to people’s lives!

  3. Christine Rooney-Browne

    Great post David – providing us with lots to think about…
    I have to agree with your point about the Public Libraries Authority Conference. As a new(ish) professional I am always quite disappointed with the line-up for this conference. It would be great to see this platform used to promote new ideas and fresh voices, instead of the same old, same old!

    Kathryn – I agree that the value of Rhymetimes (or Book Bug/Bounce and Rhyme) sessions are difficult to measure yet it is these very initiatives that can have the greatest impact on the library community. Over the last couple of years I’ve been researching the social value of public libraries. Hopefully I’ll have some useful results to publish towards the end of next year. 🙂

  4. AW

    Thank goodness, someone who speaks sense! I have over 20 years exeperince of working in public libraries and I am appalled by the mis-management of them. We have been hoodwinked into thinking that the way forward is through adopting retail models and diversification, our libraries are now ‘Discovery Centres’ and ‘Idea Stores’ with loyalty cards and self serice kiosks. In my view this has to a large degree undermined the profession and our integrity. We can’t and should have never tried to compete with the leisure sector. I have been reguarly branded ‘out of touch’ and a ‘luddite’ for holding these views.
    And more importantly we haven’t listened to our users and the general public, whom the MLA now tell us “value libraries and want books”!!! We have lost focus and sight of our core ethos ‘learning’.

  5. James Miller

    Spot on David. The ‘audit agenda’ has dominated local government library services – to the detriment of both service users and library staff – for far too long. The complaints of auditors about the ‘inefficiency’ of ‘too many’ professional librarians being involved in stock selection, led directly to small centralised cliques, demotivation of library staff whose expertise was ‘no longer needed’ and ultimately, to supplier selction. The same rationale (and rubbishing of the necessity of professional library skills and knowledgeable front-line library staff) is now being deployed to replace experienced front-line and specialist staff with unpaid volunteers.
    Is it mere coincidence that issue and visit figures have declined markedly over the same timescale that this ‘gradgrind’ approach to public services and public library provision has increasingly gained ground? Services have been starved of adequate funding for the best part of 35 years, whilst library staff have been progressively demoralised and undervalued.
    Meanwhile members of the public will soon be expected to keep paying the same amount of Council Tax but for only half the library services that used to be provided.
    Taxpayers should be demanding that all local authorities continue to meet their legal obligations by maintaining a comprehensive library service across the whole country.
    How can a library service that has been meeting these legal requirements for years by operating 12 libraries, still be doing so when this number is reduced by 50%??

  6. Pingback: ‘A neoliberal mindset’

  7. Hermione

    David, I have to hold my hands up as one of the professionals who didn’t take their role seriously enough and I regret that now having met so many young graduates with fire in their bellies and with libraries in such danger. When I went to college the lecturers were bored and out of touch, so something good must have happened. However, we do need to remember that money has to come from somewhere to fund us, so we must be realists. Also books like Twilight have done a huge amount to get people reading who would previously not have picked up a book, so we need to avoid becoming literature snobs. What is the point of having a collection of books that nobody reads?

  8. David McMenemy

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting, much appreciated.

    Hermione – thanks also for your comments. I’d take issue with one thing, the notion that arguing for librarians to remember why libraries actually exist making someone lack realism. The profession has been attempting to create a case for the service on the terms of people who have contempt for the concept. They’ve essentially spent the last 20 years being what Neoliberal politicians have asked them to be, on their terms, not our own, and not those of the society we serve. Where has that got us exactly? We’ve played the populist game, but hundreds of libraries will still close because politicians see them as easy touches for cuts. That’s been a good 20 years spent putting public libraries “at the core” of the thinking of politicians hasn’t it?

    The public libraries of the UK have survived worse recessions than the one we are in; the difference is now that the politicians in charge only value the market. You need only see what is happening with funding in English universities to see the neoliberal lunatics now run the asylum.

    It’s the job of a profession to make sure they are called on every short-termist, idiotic decision that they propose in areas they simply do not understand or value; not simply say “thank you, please can we have more.”

  9. Tim Coates

    David.. I was trying to ask you some questions on my own blog, but Lauren has kindly invited me to come on here and ask them. What do you mean by a ‘neo-liberal mind-set’ and by a ‘consumerist mind-set’ and what is the ‘mythology of choice’? I got lost in the argument because these are unfamiliar expressions. Tim

  10. David McMenemy

    Sorry Tim, just saw your questions.

    The neoliberal mindset is that the market is all. That’s fine in the private sector, but is plainly silly with regards to a service like public libraries. Public libraries exist outside of the market, they do not replicate anything that the market provides (unless you count sales of reading glasses, etc).

    The consumerist mindset is that public services should provide people with what they want, rather than what they and society needs, and that the modern consumer will choose an alternative if they don’t get what they want from libraries. What this leads to is dumbed down collections that accentuate multiple copies of questionable content rather than balanced collections that the community can benefit from.

    The mythology of choice is simply the notion that people ARE free to choose an alternative to public libraries, and my argument was that they are only if they have the resources to do so.

  11. Pingback: The Value of Public Libraries (and the measurement and demonstration thereof) | Walk You Home

  12. @LibraryWeb

    New year is the right time for thinking about goals and (prioritised) values for the year ahead! Without any further ado 🙂

    – Libraries have currently consumed all the fat they have, and have been burning muscle to survive for a while now (cannibalising their own flesh effectively)
    – Those trained librarians that are left and with enough of a salary to do so keep developing their career whilst keeping in mind the foundations as laid down in the 1964 Act[1] and (as Tim Coates often reminds) the provision of literature and information to the public
    – On the anniversary of the 1964 Act, a new inquiry into public library standards by the body that legislation put in place to maintain them[1] (it may not be appropriate to create new standards at this point, however perhaps modernised, establishing the expectation that library standards will only improve over the decades; if there is/was a neoliberal conspiracy, this appears to have been the first strategic target!)
    – the necessary political maneuvering towards the ends of a proper e-book lending service (where things currently stand[1], it will take more negotiation with publishers I think)

    On the question of rejuvinating issues (i.e., book loans, if any authorities have any resources remaining to put this under the heading of anything other than policy wishlist), in the past DVDs, Internet access, etc., Today:

    – social media strategy (an increasingly preferred means of communication)
    – information literacy (particularly finding books and other sources of literature)
    – cultural role (literary arts)
    – using staff time freed by technology for more outreach work (encorporating all of the above)
    – R & D, the library is of value in every context of our lives, the libraries have by no means exhausted all the new possibilities presented for a more efficient and comprehensive service in the technological and political age we live
    – etc.

  13. John Pateman

    David espouses an elitist viewpoint which argues that middle class librarians know best and should be the arbiters of public taste. The professional librarian knows best based on assumed needs. It is this line of thinking and way of working which had made public libraries increasingly irrelevant to the masses. The decline in circulation started well before modernization and austerity. People vote with their feet when the library no longer gives them what they want and need. We live in a neo liberal consumer driven society where the illusion of choice is created by the one party capitalist system and promoted by the media. If we are truly going to return to our historical routes then we need to drop outmoded notions of professional excellence and neutrality and become ruthlessly partisan and pro poor. Public libraries were intended for the working class but high jacked by the middle class to subsidies their leisure interests. The social mission of the public library is to meet the needs of those with the greatest needs. For this to happen we need new strategies, structures, systems and cultures. New ways of thinking and working. The old system has failed and must be replaced. Libraries which have taken the community led approach are thriving and growing. Libraries which sustain their community will be sustained by that community.

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