The Arts Council report on community libraries

The release of the official view on community libraries has underlined our grave concerns about the future for public libraries in the UK, and the government’s intentions towards them.  Whilst some of the contents come as no great surprise, we are deeply troubled by how this report will be interpreted by library authorities across England.

According to the report, community libraries run by volunteers are a viable alternative to a service provided by paid and trained staff (both professional and non-professional).  We simply do not agree with this conclusion.  Volunteer libraries are not a sustainable long-term option and simply offer many councils a quick fix or a useful tactic to shift responsibility for providing the service from the council to the local community.  Very often, this is done despite the local community’s preference for the service to be delivered by the local authority.  In effect, this transfer of responsibility isn’t so much recognition of “the value of communities being more involved in the provision of local libraries” (as the report claims), but a way to play on the fears of the community by informing them that they either provide the service, or it will disappear.

Indeed, we have heard from many ‘volunteer’ groups running libraries who believe strongly that the service would be in better hands if run by the local authority.  Many of these volunteers are not volunteers at all, but concerned library users who, when faced with the closure of a library service, feel duty bound to provide the service to ensure it survives in some form.  Eric Pickles, in an associated press release, claims that:

“This report shows that localism is alive and well with more people and local groups playing a bigger part than ever before in providing local services whilst also saving taxpayers money.”

We believe that this report proves the opposite is true: localism is on life support.  The will of the local population (for their library service to be provided by the local authority) is being ignored in the drive to cuts costs and shift responsibilities.

Volunteer libraries are unsustainable because they rely on a pool of people who can provide the service in their spare time.  Labour is not static. Volunteers will come and go (if they can be recruited at all) and libraries are in serious danger of closure if their pool of volunteers evaporates.  As a result, there is a serious risk that expertise will be lost or compromised to ensure that the service can still exist.

Finally, we have serious concerns that this report will pave the way for a two-tier library service.  Those living in large towns and cities will have access to a professionally run, well-resourced library service.  Those living in rural communities, unable to regularly commute to their nearest public library, will be left with a hollowed out service that is not fit for purpose.  This division in service provision is, we believe, in contravention of the obligation to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.  For the communities, their local library will be neither comprehensive nor efficient.  We believe these communities deserve better, even if Mr Pickles and the Arts Council believe otherwise.

Overall, we are deeply disappointed in the Arts Council’s report and we are all too aware that library staff and users will be in despair at both their report and its endorsement by Eric Pickles.  We also strongly believe that this poorly researched report underlines that, in its present form, the Arts Council is not a fit and proper body to support the delivery of library services, not least because of the severe reduction in staff available to provide that dedicated support.

We still hope that true localism will prevail and the wishes of local communities, often blackmailed into providing library services, will be respected by both local authorities and national government.  But our hope is diminished by the clear intentions laid out in the report and we fear greatly what this means for the future of our public library service.

15 thoughts on “The Arts Council report on community libraries

  1. Pete Smith

    Absolutely. If the message is ‘these libraries close unless volunteers run them,’ that’s not a positive call to ‘localism.’ And interpreting ‘localism’ as ‘volunteering’ is a problem in itself.

    Reply
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    1. Voices for the Library Post author

      Hi. Thanks for letting us know about the link. It should actually have pointed to this story about Walcot library in Swindon which, although it has not closed, had to reduce it opening hours due to a lack of volunteers:

      http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/8425374.Library_hours_cut_due_to_lack_of_volunteers/

      Whilst this is not a closure, it underlines the difficulties with relying on volunteers and, furthermore, this underlines the central point that libraries could be faced with closure anyway if there aren’t enough volunteers to provide the service.

      Reply
    2. Voices for the Library Post author

      Out of interest, is ICT training provided for the volunteers at Farnham Common or is IT literacy a pre-requisite for volunteering? If so, what training is provided and how is the level of IT literacy tested? If not, how is ICT support provided?

      Reply
  4. librariesmatter

    The Swindon libraries website says Walcot library is open on Saturday morning – is it wrong?

    Aren’t Council-run libraries much more active in reducing opening hours that community run libraries? For example Herfordshire cut its opening hours by 30% across all its libraries. Often community-run libraries increase hours not reduce them.

    Reply
    1. Voices for the Library Post author

      It’s difficult to see how that could be argued effectively at this stage, for a variety of reasons, not least because there is not enough data to draw an effective conclusion on that just yet. But if you are offering to conduct some thorough research for us…!

      That said, it does rather miss the underlying point. Walcot library did have to reduce its hours (stopping the Saturday service) as a result of a lack of volunteers to provide the service. We are not aware of any council run service that has either reduced its hours long term or closed specifically as a result of an inability to recruit staff. That said, if you can cite a library that has had its service reduced for specifically this reason, we would certainly welcome any information you might have.

      The broader problem here is that volunteer libraries are more prone to closure or a long-term reduction of hours simply because they cannot provide enough staff to deliver the service. This has not, to the best of our knowledge, been an issue with a council run service delivered by contracted staff.

      Reply
  5. librariesmatter

    I agree many community-run libraries are recent, but that doesn’t provide evidence one way or the other on their likely long term prospects. Of those that have been around for a few years and are part of the statutory public library service – are you aware of any that have closed? There are plenty of council-run libraries that have closed or have had their hours reduced. You are making the claim that ‘volunteer libraries are more prone to closure or a long-term reduction of hours’ Could you provide the empirical evidence to support that claim?

    Your distinction on staff/volunteer shortage vs other reasons for reduced library services is surely of little interest to the public. The local service is either there or it isn’t. I’m not aware of any library service cuts where the Council has said ‘these cuts are temporary we will restore the previous service from date x in the future.’

    Surely the current stance of the professional librarians is unhelpful. For a number of years in the nineties and noughties small libraries were closed and the profession didn’t seem at all fussed. Now because of the funding reductions many councils are having to think very hard indeed about efficiency and service priorities. The public is pretty clear that they value local libraries. One way to maintain or even improve the smaller libraries is partnership working with local communities which brings in additional free/low cost resource into the provision of the library service. The professional librarians(CILIP/VFTL)haven’t made any suggestions on how to maintain the public library service with less money, so by default they are indicating that they prefer library closures and a smaller service. I find that baffling.

    Reply
  6. Voices for the Library Post author

    “There are plenty of council-run libraries that have closed or have had their hours reduced.”

    Of course! The specific claim here is that volunteer libraries have had to reduce their hours because they have not been able to recruit enough staff. This problem has affected no council run libraries as far as we are aware. Unless you have the evidence to suggest otherwise!

    “For a number of years in the nineties and noughties small libraries were closed and the profession didn’t seem at all fussed.”

    Personally, I have only been working in libraries since 2005…what the profession did during the nineties and noughties has little to do with me…and certainly, it is worth remembering that public library staff are unable to say anything about library closures for fear of losing their jobs(and other sectors within the profession were undergoing closures and reductions during this timeframe).

    “One way to maintain or even improve the smaller libraries is partnership working with local communities which brings in additional free/low cost resource into the provision of the library service.”

    Certainly have no problem with working with local community…but not keen on forcing communities to run them as an alternative to closing them and also not particularly keen on staffing it with untrained volunteers (I note you haven’t answered my question above re ICT – we’d also be interested to know what training is provided, beyond ICT).

    “The professional librarians(CILIP/VFTL)haven’t made any suggestions on how to maintain the public library service with less money, so by default they are indicating that they prefer library closures and a smaller service. I find that baffling.”

    I’m not surprised you find that baffling as making suggestions in this matter certainly isn’t our role (you really need to direct that to the Society of Chief Librarians!). Our aims can be found here:

    http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/?page_id=2

    We cannot support the adoption of volunteer run libraries as it results in trained, salaried staff being replaced with volunteers, leads to a less sustainable service and creates a two-tier (at the very least) library service (one service staffed by trained staff and professionals, one by volunteers). Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that volunteers have taken up the challenge of running a library in order to prevent its closure, in our experience, most say that they would prefer it if their library service was actually run by the local authority. We agree with them. Perhaps you do not.

    Reply
  7. librariesmatter

    I haven’t answered your queries on Farnham Common because I don’t live in or have any connection with Farnham Common Community Library. I merely suggested it was food for thought.

    It would be great if VFTL could be more constructive and winge less!

    Reply
    1. Voices for the Library Post author

      Ah ok, apologies, misunderstood!

      If you like constructive dialogue and less whinging, perhaps you might like to contribute:

      http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/?page_id=21

      One of our aims is to provide more personal stories about the positive effects libraries have had on library users. Sounds like you would be interested in sharing your thoughts on why the library service means so much to you! Drop us a line if so and we’ll happily share it. Always welcome contributions!

      Reply
  8. Alan Wylie

    @librariesmatter “For a number of years in the nineties and noughties small libraries were closed and the profession didn’t seem at all fussed.” I’m sorry but this is a ridiculous statement and one not based on fact, library staff as union members have fought along side communities in protecting library services for all of my 20+ years of working in the sector. In Hackney library staff co-ordinated a campaign against the closure of 7 libraries, we leafleted, held public meetings and took industrial action over it and this has been replicated up and down the country over the years! But library staff as local gov officers need to be careful about criticising or campaigning against their own employer, this is a breach of their code of conduct so any action has to be carefully thought out and orchestrated mostly through union involvement.
    I hope i’m not wingeing too much?

    Reply
  9. librariesmatter

    Alan, my comment about the nineties and noughties really referred to the Chief Librarians and the library professionals in CILIP/MLA/DCMS rather than the staff doing the work in public libraries.

    Reply
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