The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Local Government Association (supported by Ed Vaizey, the Minister with responsibility for libraries) have released their long awaited Phase 1 report on the future of our public library service. The ‘Future Libraries: Change, options and how to get there’ report unveils proposals that they claim will ‘bring libraries into the 21st Century and meeting the needs of a new generation of library users.’
However, Voices for the Library believes that the set of proposals outlined will lead to serious damage to our public library network, and be counterproductive to efforts to modernise libraries and meet the needs of the UK public.It has been clear throughout the process that recommendations would be made for volunteers to run libraries. As early as January this year, when Ed Vaizey chaired a round-table discussion on volunteers in libraries, it was clear that volunteer run libraries would figure in the proposals. In fact, the idea was initially floated as early as June last year by consultancy firm KPMG (who are one of a number of consultancy firms that have seconded staff to work with the Conservative administration).
As we have stated repeatedly, volunteers cannot and should not replace paid professionals and staff. Even volunteers involved in running existing community libraries have explicitly stated that volunteers should not be seen as a solution. The suggestion that libraries can co-exist with unrelated or non-council run services is also a cause for concern. Placing libraries in sports centres, shops and village halls raises more questions than it answers. Will there be trained staff on hand to provide the level of service that the library users will demand? Will the staff be able to assist in providing access to the resources the users require? A room that is merely full of books is not a library, no matter how the councils dress it up. Most importantly, how will authorities determine whether a ‘library’ in a sports centre has been a success? Without being able to provide data to prove its usage, how long will it be before the council seeks to withdraw funding altogether? After all, if they do not know its level of usage they will see it purely as expenditure they can no longer afford. As the mission of the public library is lost, councils will fail, or continue to fail, to understand why they should provide a library service to their citizens.
Finally, proposals to place libraries in shops or to work in partnership with the private sector also provides cause for concern. We have seen already the impact that the private sector has had on libraries in the United States. LSSI (one of a number of companies looking to take over libraries in this country) have made cutting overheads and replacing unionised employees central to their plans. The implications for those who work in libraries is clear. In terms of libraries in shops, again there are implications that are cause for concern. Libraries and librarians are bound by a commitment not to restrict access to books on any grounds except that of the law. Retailers are not bound by such commitment and are subject to the demands of their customers. As has been seen before, retailers will not hesitate from removing a book if it is seen to cause offence. How will a library based in a shop manage this? How will they reconcile the needs of two different sets of customers? Will they be pressured by the potential impact on their revenues if they continue to provide access to a controversial text? And what then for those that wish to access such resources?
Unfortunately, at a time when real leadership and vision is required to outline a truly 21st century library service, the government is found lacking in imagination, short-sighted in its approach and blinkered by ideology. These proposals do not outline a positive future for libraries and will only further their decline. We strongly urge the government to tear up these proposals and truly listen to the needs and demands of local communities across the country. Furthermore, we recommend that library users express their concerns regarding these proposals by emailing the Arts Council, the department that now has responsibility for libraries, at email@example.com.