Will Medway libraries really offer ‘Better for Less’?

The following post was written by Andrew Day and originally appeared on The Medway Broadside website.  Andrew has very kindly given permission for us to reproduce it here.


Rochester Castle in Medway, Kent. Medway Council is a unitary authority separate to Kent County Council. (Image c/o Alex Ridgway on Flickr.)

Public libraries have been a mainstay of my life. They represent an individual’s right to acquire knowledge; they are the sinews that bind civilized societies the world over. Without libraries, I would be a pauper, intellectually and spiritually.’

James A. Michener

This may be news to some, and old news to others, but it’s worth repeating:  Medway Council plans to move council services, including the payment of bills, into five of its town centre libraries. The proposals will see library staff partnered with customer contact staff, to answer enquiries and deliver council services to members of the public as part of the council’s ‘Better For Less’ cost-cutting program. These proposals are bundled in with the loss of seventy jobs from across the council’s teams, some of which, it has been alleged, will come from among library staff.

It seems then, that Medway’s librarians, as well being thinner on the ground, will also be expected to deliver services carried out by specialist, and now presumably redundant, customer service staff. Although librarianship may seem to be all about books, it is a complex, information science-based subject, that requires study to Bachelors of Masters level to qualify. It can encompass anything from children’s librarianship to archives management, the very skills that underpin Medway Libraries’ vibrant, and award winning children’s services, local studies centres and library-based events.

Rather than putting their specialist skills to use, the skills that allow librarians to recommend a book, run a childrens’ story session, or pull up a census record from the archives, the Council wants them to spend time processing council tax bills, or answering questions about bin collections.

Applying the same optimistic stretch of logic implied in ‘Better For Less’, you might consider asking your hairdresser to sort out your tax return next time you go for a haircut, or ask the check-out boy at Tesco Metro what the second volume in Sartre’s Roads to Freedom Trilogy is. There’s every chance he might know, of course, but it would still be a distraction from his normal job role, and a stretch of his professional skills to start answering questions on existentialist fiction whilst he’s making sure you’ve got your Clubcard points.

Asking a librarian to do a council customer services operative’s job is no different: it’s a distraction from an already complex and demanding job, and an unnecessary misapplication of their skills. Satire apart, what the council are proposing may seem relatively insignificant and inoffensive, but it could be the difference between your library functioning as a library (staff who know their books, Baby Bounce and Rhyme Time, talks by local historians, creative writing classes) and operating as some kind of bastardised Post Office counter, where confused,  lonely  books jockey for attention with council tax Direct Debt slips.

‘…the book is second only to the wheel as the best piece of technology human beings have ever invented. A book symbolises the whole intellectual history of mankind; it’s the greatest weapon ever devised in the war against stupidity. Beware of anyone who tries to make books harder to get at.’

(Philip Pullman)

The core purpose of a library is to lend books, or in a more 21st century setting, to enable access to literature and information in all their forms, from print to e-books.  Medway‘s libraries have acted enthusiastically when called upon to branch out into community services, and run a wide range of activities, events and services, all targeted at the library’s core aim of enlightening and empowering its community through free access to information. It is acknowledged that as a community space, and community service, libraries have a role in branching beyond more traditional functions, but the key here is that those functions should use librarians’ professional skills toinform and empower people.

Acting as an ersatz service point for council queries and bill payments does nothing to inform and empower people. It will prevent library staff from doing those very things as they are torn away from their core roles. The government report on public libraries, published in 2005, was very clear on the dangers of over-stretching and over-burdening library services:

‘We recognise that libraries are viewed as safe public environments and as such have the potential to act as a suitable home for services meeting a wide range of community needs and wishes. However, it is equally clear to us that libraries must not be over-loaded with objectives or expectations that strain their resources or inhibit the fulfilment of their core functions [my emphasis]… Libraries and their staff cannot be expected to constitute a one-stop shop for all a community’s demands for information and advice without the appropriate allocation, and clear demarcation, of resources.’

(Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2005)

The council’s proposals fly in the face of expert, carefully researched advice. With potential redundancies yet to be confirmed, the situation at Medway’s libraries may yet get even worse. It might be easier to accept this, in the current economic climate, if the council didn’t have such a rich track record of going millions of pounds over-budget  on mis-managed captial projects, or devoting their energies to headline-grabbing, but unsuccessful, city status bids. The Save Medway Libraries page alleges that council money was spent on consultants to review library services, without them even visiting a library. Given the paucity of public information available on the proposed changes, it is impossible to substantiate this, although local councillor Vince Maple has been openly critical of the council’s record of  spending public funds on external consultants.

Medway Council should value its libraries – it is in charge of a vibrant, active, professional library service that does mountains of good work to benefit the community. Nowhere is immune to cuts and changes in these straitened times, but a good council should recognise the value of what it has, and should not water down or over-burden existing services to make short-term savings. If we lose our library services, or if they are turned into something less than what they are, we might never get them back. If you are concerned about the proposed changes, write to your  local MP or councillor, join the Save Medway Libraries Facebook page (N.B. this hasn’t been updated recently) and, if you haven’t for a while, visit your local library. There’s a lot of good stuff going on there.

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