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.