‘Giving communities more power does not mean dumping a problem on them…’ A letter from Carolyn

The following letter was sent by Mrs. Carolyn Carter, a Somerset library user, to her local Councillor in response to the Library Service consultation. Mrs Carter has kindly given us permission to publish this letter.

“8th January 2011

Dear Ms. Lawrence,

SCC Libraries’ Consultation

I am writing to voice my views and great disquiet about the proposed decimation of the Somerset Library Service.  Please note:  I neither work for Somerset Libraries or SCC nor have any family or friends who do; my comments are those of a library user and someone who values their worth to all in society.

I have completed the questionnaire but, like so many, it does not ask the right questions and frequently skews many of the answers.  For example,

Q.2: Which library do you use the most? (select one only)

To this question I answered ‘Yeovil’ and hence nicely bolstered the Consultation Document’s statistic, that Yeovil is one of the libraries “currently account[ing] for about 80% of all library visits, 78% of issues and 78% of active members.”

However, had I been asked why I use Yeovil, my answer would have been illuminating, viz:  ‘because I and my family have long, long ago exhausted our local library service and stock at Castle Cary and, more recently, especially since the cuts in staffing, at Wincanton too’- a very different slant on the former question, I’m sure you will agree?  Consequently, since we cannot possibly be alone in this behaviour, using the 80%/78% statistic as a basis for cuts is both misplaced and actually disingenuous.  Furthermore, just because we have experienced a poor local library service in the past does not mean we now deserve to have it even more curtailed in the future!  This is particularly important for all those users and potential users who do not have the funds, physical mobility or the transport to travel to a library much further away: I have all three, which enables me to undertake the far longer journey to Yeovil library, many do not.  Travel – and its costs – is a genuine concern in such a rural county and, where buses exist, cuts to routes and their frequency have already been announced.

The library service is always a very easy target for cuts and, no doubt, appears attractive as a candidate for ‘giving communities more powers’ etc., as wished for in the government’s Big Society.  However, reneging on statutory duties to provide: “a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof,” does not mean removing funding from a considerable proportion of Somerset residents – residents, I reiterate, who would  have made more use of the service had it not been drastically cut in the past.  Giving communities more power, does not mean dumping a problem on them.

Already, Somerset Library Service has far too few qualified librarians:  getting professional help is already difficult in the larger libraries and virtually or actually impossible in the smaller branches.  Since professional input is also needed for tasks such as stock selection and indexing, the lack of relevant and updated stock in the proposed community libraries can only drastically worsen.

Consequently, the assertion that:  “Savings arising from the reduction in numbers of fully-funded libraries would be matched by significant savings in support, management and professional staffing costs,” simply beggars belief and at a time when more professional help and expertise in the acquisition, indexing, finding, dissemination and utilisation of information will be needed, as unemployment increases and young people drop out of FE from a lack of EMA.

I think it highly likely you will get willing volunteers to run the proposed community libraries, but these will become little more than aging fiction book-swap clubs, being run and used mainly by middle-class, middle-aged, white women (just like me).  These unqualified volunteers will not be able to offer any outreach services, to encourage and cater for young people, offer expertise with information finding and use, keep-up indexes and catalogues to aid searching, assist with ICT and other media (if they still exist!), know what and how to buy new materials – and buy them, etc. etc. etc.

Furthermore, once the Council goes down this road and loses its staff’s expertise and skill base, the service will decline further (which will, no doubt, lead to a reduction in people using the services and the Council saying there isn’t a need for the services because no-one is using them – and so the self-fulfilling downward spiral will continue).  Such dumbed-down, out of date book clubs, with probably very restricted opening hours, will not only be an affront in a civilized society but also will not actually cater for, nor engender, the Big Society: a great many potential users (particularly the young and ethnic minorities) will be put off entering such parochial places, thereby negating one of the most important roles of public libraries, that of being socially inclusive by providing a non-threatening, non judgemental space, with a range of resources freely available to all.

These proposals are a backward step per se, would appear to contravene the Council’s statutory duties and their timing is both retrograde and a wasted opportunity in the current climate:  more people will have less money and increased (albeit enforced) free time and hence will actually need greater access to local services and the skilled help necessary to find and utilise up to date information and leisure resources.  Having a mere 14 funded libraries in a county the size of Somerset is nothing less than a shaming scandal.

Yours sincerely,

Carolyn Carter (Mrs)”

Following on from this letter, Mrs. Carter also posted an email to a discussion list, with another key point about her local library.

“Castle Cary library  is not small, it is tiny and hence the stock and lack of/access to qualified staff means it cannot offer a full service (NB. this is not a criticism of the CC staff). Ever since living in the area we have been promised a new libary but this has not happened (in fairness, latterly due to local councillors’ location concerns).  It is well documented that improved library services raise use and hence increase the all-important usage statistics.  Consequently, had CC had a new library before these cuts there is every likelihood that it would have entered the ranks of being worthy of continued funding.”

4 thoughts on “‘Giving communities more power does not mean dumping a problem on them…’ A letter from Carolyn

  1. Sarah

    Fantastic letter, thank you and well done! This highlights the problems with so-called consultations and/or questionnaires – there must be opportunity provided for people to elaborate on their responses, otherwise the results are pointless and they can be interpreted in such a way as the local Government/councillors see fit. Qualitative data would reveal more valid information about the true strength of feeling in the community, I feel.

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  3. Jane

    Mrs Carter has written a very pertinent letter to her local Council. It would be interesting to see the reply.
    Libraries are lifeblood to those who use them. They are much more than buildings filled with books on shelves. They are communities. The library staff, too, are part of these communities.
    What Mrs Carter’s letter says about (unqualified) volunteers is absolutely right. How I would love to volunteer to work in a library, but absolutely not at the expense of qualified staff and absolutely not at the expense of libraries losing their social inclusivity.
    Once we lose a single library, there is very little chance of it opening its doors as such again.

  4. Eleanor

    I thought I’d pass this on as it maybe of interest! I got a response today 15th feb, regarding the Library Service Review.

    Initially I sent this to Kieren Quinn Head of Council and the other 8 members of the cabinet. They just sent a link back to the Tameside Council website. But he also put me in contact with the report writer Adam Allan. (See below please) he was very helpful.

    Here are 3 questions 11 sent.

    Further to your message of 7th February 2012, I am pleased to make the following responses to the points you raise.

    7) Will you have full awareness of the issues and impact on the many community groups within the Tameside district before any proposed decision? Response: We are aiming to bring the widest range of relevant evidence to the review process. Community groups and individual members of those groups have had, and will have, every opportunity to alert us to issues and impacts of the key principles set out in the consultations.

    8) It’s said that “All returns will then be considered along with existing information that is available to form firm recommendations for the Council’s Executive Cabinet”. What is the existing information? Response: The existing information consists of usage data, previous surveys, building survey reports, cost analyses, and other relevant statistical and management data which informs our understanding of the service. Me: That’s where the evidence is gathered, nothing to do with the review, I’m thinking?

    9) The Library Service Review is a “standard questionnaire”. Would you agree with the statement? Response: The Big Conversation questionnaire relating to the library service has been specifically designed for this consultation exercise. The present questionnaire is not the service review. Me: So why is it called the Library Service Review, as they say it is a “consultation exercise”? I’m thinking now that maybe this it is publicity stunt/exercising spin making they appear that they are consulting with the public with no intention in using the evidence from the Library Service Review?

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