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.