Reflections on the Arts Council Consultation Workshop

Alan Wylie, of the “Stop the privatization of Public Libraries” blog, shares his experience of the recent workshop at Swiss Cottage library.


‘Envisioning the library of the future’ – 16/5/12 – Swiss Cottage Library

Swiss Cottage Library, London (image c/o George Rex on Flickr).

I don’t even bother trying to keep an open mind when attending these kind of events, I’ve got an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what the agenda will be and I’m very rarely wrong! So I wasn’t disappointed when I saw the attendee list, Directors, Heads, Senior Managers, Senior Officers, Consultants, a few marketing types, a few volunteer types, a small handful of campaigners, a UNISON Official (thank god!) and a Cultural Champion. Very top heavy and loaded with marketeers and cutters!
Then I read the ‘workshop notes’ and my heart sank even further, with talk of ‘consumers’, ‘future proofed libraries’, ‘new models for raising funds’ and to top it all the ‘library brand’!

The programme then started with an introduction by Helen Lax, East Regional Director Arts Council England, who within 5 minutes had already mentioned ‘volunteers’ and the ‘commercial sector’ and told us that we needed to look at ‘how the citizen consumes culture’. For a brief moment I thought I might have stumbled into a franchising event for a fast-food retail opportunity!

We then got a slick marketing style presentation from Ipsos Mori and Shared Intelligence of key socio-economic indicators and library trends, something that would have been better sent as a PowerPoint presentation to all attendees before the workshop! A key message from this part of the session was that “we’re not futurologists”!

We were then split into colour coded groups to discuss 4 scenarios of how the UK might be in 2022, and were asked to discuss how libraries would take up certain challenges relating to the scenarios. My group chose the topics of ‘partnerships’ and ‘changing staff roles’ as wider issues and then every groups discussion topics, which were written on post-it notes, were pinned to a wall, by this time I was feeling like pinning more than the post-it notes to the wall!

After lunch we each picked a discussion topic, mine being ‘volunteering and community libraries’ and split of into groups. My group had a Service Development Manager from Lewisham, the CEO of Eco Computer Systems, a Camden Campaigner, a Volunteer Coordinator and someone else to do with volunteering! The discussion got rather heated when the Camden campaigner started to taunt the Lewisham contingent and when I said to the Volunteer Coordinator “how do you think that I feel having built up 20+ years of knowledge and skills only to be told that a volunteer can do my job”, she said “that’s what I thought when I took up the challenge, am I supposed to do all this?”. When I brought up the issues of data protection, customer service, stock selection, etc I was told that “all these things can be easily learnt or overcome”!

The Eco bloke then eulogised about his community libraries and what a wonderful philanthropist he was, it was at this point I decided to leave!

It was all very loaded and very frustrating, there was virtually no one challenging the neo-liberal status quo which isn’t really surprising due to the dynamics of the group!

There is a general feeling amongst those in the know that ACE are struggling with their libraries remit and that their vision and consultation has been more style over substance. Which is a crying shame considering that the public library service we all know and love is being slowly but surely ripped apart. This could have been an opportunity for an honest and open debate and the chance to put in place a framework for a truly comprehensive and efficient service but instead we have the same old neo-liberal market led agenda once loved by the ‘Admiral’!