Barnet – where “library” is a dirty word

“Library” – a dirty word in Barnet? (Image of Ann Arbor Library in Michigan c/o Jim Howe on Flickr.)

Last month, Barnet Council revealed plans to make substantial cuts to staffing across their libraries.  Chief amongst these were the revelations that the “duties” of professionally qualified librarians will be cut from 24.5 posts to just 6. Furthermore, the remaining 6 will no longer work directly with the public. Instead Barnet Council will expect library assistants to carry out essentially the same tasks as librarians, and for less pay. Whilst library assistants play an important role in the delivery of library services, it is unfair to expect them to take on this level of work.

As Barnet UNISON have highlighted, areas that were formerly covered by librarians include:

  • Outreach work with schools
  • Selection and management of stock
  • The organisation and running of library events and activities for adults and children
  • Enquiry services
  • IT support
  • The development of the library service on-line services.”

The inability to fulfil these roles will have a significant impact on the local community.  For example, librarians spend a great deal of time liaising and working with local schools to build links with the library and develop literacy skills.  This requires careful planning and good knowledge of the school curriculum, not to mention a good understanding of the appropriate teaching skills.  It is highly unlikely that library assistants will be given the appropriate tools to deliver such a service and, consequently, such a service will no longer be offered.  This, in turn, will lead to a detrimental impact on the development of literacy skills amongst local children, particularly those whose parents simply cannot afford to supply their children with the books they need to support their development.

The root cause of the council’s damaging proposals appears to be years of mismanagement.  Only two years ago, the head of service, Tom Pike, authored a library strategy document that was supposed to lead to £1.4m savings over a three year period (2011-2014).  Part of the strategy relied heavily on the plan to share services with another borough (leading to savings of around £300k).  Unfortunately, Barnet council have not, as yet, been able to strike an agreement with any other borough so these savings have never emerged.  The strategy also relied heavily on capital receipts from selling Friern Barnet Library and North Finchley Library (the former through closure, the latter through relocation).  Again, these plans have not come to fruition (although talks are ongoing to relocate North Finchley Library to the Arts Depot).

Following the departure of Tom Pike in 2011, Barnet Council brought in Heather Wills and Bill Murphy as consultants to come up with a new strategy for library services.  Wills and Murphy had previously conducted some work on library services in Barking and Dagenham which led to plans to close half the libraries in the district.  Even now, libraries are still being closed, demonstrating the weakness of their strategy and a lack of  long-term planning.   Interestingly, Wills is quoted in The Guardian in 2004 saying (in reference to Tower Hamlets):

“People wanted [libraries] to be in the high street, where they could pop in while shopping. They were put off by the dusty image of the old buildings. We knew that the replacements would need the same high-quality design as the shops which are the biggest competition for people’s time.”

Which is interesting considering Friern Barnet library seems to fit the description of the kind of library people want given as it is conveniently placed for local residents.  Furthermore, in 2005, giving evidence to a Select Committee hearing, Wills stated that:

“We very much recognise that if we had increased our opening hours, produced wonderful buildings, even put them on the High Street and put all these great books in them, and it still had “Library” on the door and it looked to the outside world the same, we probably would not have achieved the significant results that we have.”

For Wills, the word “library” does not even have a place in the library service (which begs the question, should we rebrand as “Voices for the Rebranded Multi-Purpose Building”?).

It is also the case that Barnet council have made a mess in terms of delivering savings. As The Guardian recently reported, the council’s own figures reveal that over the last two years, the borough has spent over £600,000 more on trying to save money that it has actually saved.

There is no denying that Barnet council, in particular Barnet libraries, has been seriously mis-managed for some time.  The victims of this mis-management are the people who rely on the services they provide.  The situation in Barnet underlines the need for a clear, well thought strategy regarding libraries.  Short-term thinking doesn’t resolve the problem, it simply exacerbates it.  Removing trained professionals will simply hasten the decline of the service, resulting in further cuts and closures.  It’s unlikely the strategy in Barnet will result in a better library service for local residents.  On the contrary, Barnet appear to be accelerating towards the cliff edge.

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