Tag Archives: big society

Libraries for a Small Society – Clair Humphries

The first library I remember was small, narrow and a homage to ‘70s design: swirly orange wallpaper, fake wood panelling and strip lights so bright they made my head hurt.

I loved it.

My four year old self wasn’t fussed about wallpaper and, seeing as it was actually the ‘70s at the time, I couldn’t blame the council for embracing contemporary trends in interior décor, however naff they might be. Besides, it was a damn sight more cheery than the rest of the concrete shopping parade on my Granny’s estate (newsagent’s – shielded by a vandal-proof metal grille, pub – boarded up) plus it had books. And people. Which suited me and Granny just fine, because I liked books and she liked to chat.


Later, as a grown-up, I worked in a number of different libraries and met lots of different library users: academics, researchers, students, school children, parents, jobseekers, the homeless. Recently bereaved pensioners – like my Granny – who just wanted to chat. I served some proper famous people, too, from off the telly and everything. I could tell you their stories, but I won’t, because the library experience that most defined my life wasn’t linked to a particular customer or one particular day at work. No, it was the first time I entered that little concrete library with its swirly orange wallpaper and its shelves full of books.


Which is why, Mr Cameron, I don’t buy into a ‘Big Society’ where these unassuming, little libraries are seen as a drain on resources. What I do believe in, and what I see around me every day, are lots of small societies – on city estates, within suburban streets, amongst rural villages and towns. These communities are local, and despite often being as small and narrow as the first library I ever knew, they deserve to be served by libraries that are local too. In ten years time, if someone decides to take their grandchild to the library for a book, who (or what) will serve them? I hope they’ll still have a local library to go to, staffed by people who know and care about the service and its users. The thought of that not being the case has the same effect on me that those harsh ‘70s strip lights did as a child.

It makes my head hurt.

Clair Humphries is a writer who loves libraries. She shares her home with a husband and far too many books.

Future of Libraries Services in the Big Society – Carl Clayton

Carl Clayton reports from the Future of Libraries Services in the Big Society conference, held 21/6/11.


A conference of this sort is clearly aimed at library leaders; i.e. not just heads of services and senior library managers but also at senior officers and members – those who make the long term policy decisions and control the purse strings. It is this latter group that have the greatest need to hear this sort of discussion – given the widely recognised low level of appreciation of the issues by many library leaders – and it was disappointing but not unusual to find that they were underrepresented in the audience. My own quick rough count of the attendees list shows c40 librarians, 11 senior directors and 4 councillors.

But of course you didn’t have to be there in person. I and apparently many others were watching the conference on-line courtesy of Policy Review TV. I would love to know how many heads of service set up viewing sessions for their Directors, Chief Executives and portfolio holders. They would have been able to share and event that, while not exactly earth shattering in terms of new ideas, provided much to consider and debate.

The first speaker was Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture with direct responsibility for libraries. The significance of Government Ministers at events like this is quite arcane. They will arrive, deliver a speech, and then leave, so there is seldom an opportunity for debate. Sometimes they will use the opportunity to deliver a major policy speech but, as in this case, it is usually more subtle. The fact that they have accepted the  invitation to appear – and have actually turned up – is often the most important aspect. In this case it suggests that the Government (or at least a part of it) does think that library services have a future. It is not much, but it is better than nothing.

Mr Vaizey’s speech went little further than this. He began by saying he was in a positive mood and praised the “fantastic work going on in libraries all over the country”. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick at any rate. he then moved on to specific examples, the coming together of three London boroughs to form a unified library service;  the award to Hillingdon of the Bookseller’s Library Innovation of the Year award; Lancashire Libraries’ partnership with the University of Lancashire and examples of new builds and refurbishments. There was nothing in the way of carrots or sticks to encourage other authorities along the same path except for keeping Mr Vaizey in a positive mood.

The Minister then declared that “… the public library service is a huge asset to be exploited; not a burden to be gradually got rid of”. This reference to the Governments consultation on administrative burdens on local authorities suggested a commitment to maintaining the Public Libraries Act, particularly as he moved directly on to the issue of his intervention in library closures under the act. He stated that he would not shy away from doing so if there was a case for it but immediately mentioned two provisos. the first was that the current situation was still fluid. The second was that it was better to have a dialogue with local authorities and that officials from his department had met with officers and campaigners in 5 local authorities to discuss cuts. He added that he would not meet with people personally as this might compromise his position in making a final decision as required. His message to local authorities appeared to be that he was happy to give them plenty of time to discuss options and alternatives but although he was keeping his powder dry he was prepared to use the weapon of intervention if all else failed.

At this point the Twitter feed for the conference was filled with Tweets pointing out examples of library service cuts which appear to show a very strong case for immediate intervention. Inevitably many will see this claim to be holding fire “for the present” as covering up an intention not to shoot at all.

Mr Vaizey then moved on to the options and alternatives that he was inviting authorities to consider. Rationalisation (i.e. mergers) was one option. “Community supported” libraries was another. He did promise that continued council support to community libraries with a core service would be a key factor. He referred to the MLA document Community Managed Libraries and the work of Locality.

Finally the Minister referred to the transfer of responsibilities to Arts Council England and the benefits that this would bring. He promised another Future Library project and hinted at a “few more ideas that we need to explore”. Opportunities for libraries to access Arts funding were dangled before the audience and the desirability of WiFi enabled libraries was mentioned, without of course any indication of how this might be funded.

Overall it was a disappointing presentation, at least for anyone hoping against hope for a stronger lead on library cuts. His support for the role of volunteers in delivering library services was clear. The Minister did draw a line in the sand and warned councils not to cross it but their room for manoeuvre behind that line is large. His closing remarks that the situation provided “opportunities” for libraries shows that his scriptwriters had run out of any original ideas and were scrapping the bottom of the cliché barrel. However we must take what we can from this speech. Mr Vaizey could have sent his apologies and his phrase that “the public library service is a huge asset to be exploited; not a burden to be gradually got rid of” could well feature on the Voices for the Library website (although the cynics out there may well ask exactly how the “asset” of libraries will be exploited, and by whom!).




Libraries and the Big Society: round-table discussions revealed

Earlier this year, on 25th January, the DCMS held a round-table discussion on Libraries and the Big Society, chaired by Ed Vaizey.  After a series of Freedom of Information requests, we can now reveal what was discussed. The following is the text as supplied by DCMS in response to our FoI requests:

Note of Libraries Roundtable

Ed Vaizey opened the discussion by setting out his view of the current state of the sector in relation to local authority budget cuts, the requirement for radical innovation in service delivery including through enacting Big Society principles. Lord Wei then set out some background on the Big Society policy, and the support being offered to people to take greater control, and to shift and share resources to create services which better fit the needs of each community. He said that he is keen to promote diversification in the use of community assets (including buildings), and raised the need for intermediaries to help to distribute resources form the Big Society Bank.

Jim Brooks spoke about his experiences of running a community library. He said that until recently the Council had not provided adequate support to the community in taking over the library, and that where an asset is devolved councils need also to make resources available and share knowledge about what is involved. He said that the additional work and process involved in running a “library business” was prohibitive, and noted that their council had charged them a £1k per annum management fee to be able to seek advice from them, [section redacted] . They have invested heavily in the bookstock and use the library for a broad range of events and activities, delivering an increase of 25% in footfall and 20% in issues. He said that they charged for fewer services than the authority libraries, as they found that this increased their revenue through donations, and noted that in his view the model would only work in affluent areas. He noted that he had been contacted by people from a broad range of areas saying that their authority had said that their local library either had to be taken over by the community or would close.

Cath Anley noted SCL work to improvement in the use of volunteers across the country, breaking this down into the involving model (where volunteers add value to the core service) and the devolving model (where groups take over the service). Other attendees spoke about experiences or plans in their local areas, including libraries being retained but becoming local government contact points; proposals around use of volunteers; shared spaces with Post Offices, supermarkets and children’s centres.

Further concerns were raised about communities in disadvantaged areas losing out through lack of a voice or lack of awareness about the value of the service, and also about councillors’ failure to recognise the value of the reader development work undertaken by library staff. Yinnon Ezra suggested that capacity building resources from parent authorities could enable disadvantaged communities to take forward ownership of an asset, and Miranda flagged TRA’s Lottery grant to support reader development work in 20 disadvantaged communities to improve literacy.

Lord Wei said that there is a push and pull dynamic with communities, outlined some of the legal and policy steps being taken to encourage change, and asked what else could be done to help, particularly before these new powers are enacted. There were suggestions for BIG funding for capacity building among communities; for a public service scheme for the unemployed which could include libraries; and for support in joining up policy between Ministers. On the latter point, Lord Wei suggested taking the topic to a Cabinet Office ministerial group.

Ed Vaizey said that he wanted to provide guidance to Authorities and community groups, using agencies to help people build on others’ experiences and to encourage LAs to have an enabling attitude. AnnemarieNaylor said that the ATU want to facilitate the sharing of material across the library network, and to develop a single portal for processing the growing number of requests they have for information. Roy Clare noted that while more proposals for closures are likely to follow the May elections.

Action points:

  • DCMS to discuss development of guidance with MLA and ATU (Action: Junior Official already progressed and linked up to discussions with Oliver Letwin)
  • DCMS to approach BIG (Action: Junior Official, can you discuss with Junior Official the best way to open discussions with BIG, drawing in EV as appropriate)
  • DCMS to contact Lord Wei’s office to follow up idea for Ministerial discussion (Action: Private Office to follow up)

List of Attendees

Lord Wei, Government’s Big Society Adviser

Annemarie Naylor, Head of Assets at the Development Trusts Association which delivers the CLG funded Asset Transfer Unit

Christine May, Head of Libraries, Archives and Information Services in Cambridgeshire

Jim Brooks,  Chairman – Friends of Little Chalfont Library

Cath Anley.  Head of Libraries & Archives, Kent

Alison Baxter,  Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action

Terry Ryall,  Chief Executive, V – the national young volunteers’ service

Yinnon Ezra, Hampshire Director of Culture, Communities and Rural Affairs

Miranda McKearney, Chief Executive, The Reading Agency

Cllr Liam Maxwell,  Windsor & Maidenhead – a Big Society Pilot Authority

Roy Clare,  Chief Executive, MLA

Richard Mollett, CEO, Publishers’ Association

Antonia Byatt, ACE


In the accompanying e-mail, the DCMS observed that, ‘we have redacted part of a sentence in paragraph 2 in accordance with section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act (Formulation of Government Policy), because Mr Brooks felt it to be incorrect, and misrepresenting his views on the matter could impede this policy development’.