Ed Vaizey has chosen to write (in Celebrating World Book Night and supporting Public LibrariesDCMS) a blast against those who dare to say that all may not be perfectly fine in public libraries.  This may play well with the five, perhaps eight, members of the public who would agree with him. More dangerously, though, he has written a very similar but expanded letter to MPs saying the same thing We therefore should take a look at what hes saying and the truth behind his words:
Ed Vaizey approvingly notes “In the UK, 20,000 volunteers will give away a million books”.  This early mention of volunteers is deliberate.  It ties in very well with the Big Society philosophy.  Not so well with the need for a skilled long-term workforce. While paying lip service to the need for paid librarians, Ed has repeatedly failed to do everything possible (anything possible) to cease their demise.  The Telegraph – not generally known for its left-leaning tendencies – reported on 2000 paid library staff being made redundant last year.  Ed is also presiding over the biggest shift from paid staff to volunteers in libraries since the end of World War Two.  While volunteers may be the solution to many problems, increasingly relying on them to run a national library service has cons as well as pros.

“I am also responsible for supervising library services in England.” Ed Vaizey, it is generally agreed, has notably failed to supervise library services since he took office.  Despite the deepest cuts to library services in peacetime history, he has failed to order a single inquiry into cuts.  This despite reductions in service including: the closure of othewise taking out of council control more than half the total number of libraries (Brent and Doncaster), nearly half of libraries (Isle of Wight) or a third of opening hours (Hertfordshire).  In four authorities (Somerset, Gloucestershire, Surrey and Brent) Ed has sat back and done nothing while library users have had to challenge the decision and pay for it from their own pockets.  Worse, in the Isle of Wight and Lewisham, he sat back while campaigners tried to fight deep cuts and did nothing when they failed to raise the money.  He even on 11th April put up a strong defence of his inaction

“Libraries are provided by 151 local authorities”.   Ed can claim credit for providing a small amount of money to encourage these councils to work better together.  This is helpful but, as with so much, Ed could have done so much more. 

“…and it is worth remembering that they have always been funded by local authorities, never by central government.”.  Classic “it’s nothing to do with me” Vaizey.  While it is true that the funding is from local authorities, Ed has done nothing to, in any way, defend the budgets of library services from the worst damage.  In some authorities, 50% of the budget is being cut. For a service that does so much to encourage literacy, equality, learning and creativity, this is shocking.  It’s like leaving a baby outside for the wolves because it’s not technically your baby.   Also, it doesn’t quite make sense: he admits in the previous sentences that he has responsibility for supervising them and then appears to distance himself from their funding.  Presumably, he feels that somehow their funding or lack of it is nothing to do with their performance.  A curious proposition, at best.

In addition, such central funding as there was for libraries has been dramatically cut.  Funding for libraries has dropped from £13m under the MLA to just £3m for the Arts Council.  The latter organisation is left to boast about a £250,000 initiative.  For the whole country.  That’s £71.42 for each branch in the country. 

“Many people claim libraries are under threat.” Somewhat of an understatement this.  Perhaps he means, “everyone else apart from me and those directly paid to do otherwise”.    The nation is aware libraries are under threat.  There has even been  – and we can assume Ed Vaizey knows about this being he had to give evidence at it – a parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry into Library Closures.  Presumably he is including the MPs in this committee, over half from his own party, as scaremongers.

“In fact there are as many libraries today as there were thirty years ago.”.  Yes, there is.  Just about. Of course, the libraries thirty years ago had longer opening hours, decent book stock, trained – even paid – staff, non-leaking roofs.  This is the danger of “hollowing out” of a service: the buildings can remain but there is nothing in them. The oak tree still stands but it is empty inside and awaiting collapse.  

“Although some have closed recently” 117 were taken out of council control last year, 23 already this year.  Of these, 54 libraries and 49 mobiles libraries have just plain closed.  33 have been forced onto volunteers to run: the alternative was closure.

“many have also opened”.  Almost all of these have been to replace libraries no longer suitable for purpose.  Of course, due to the time taken for building libraries, the money for these openings was largely committed under the previous Government.  Some big central libraries – such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – won’t open for another year or two, although work started in 2009 or before.  Ed Vaizey will doubtless claim credit for them too.  Also, notice the semantics here – he uses the word “some” for closures and “many” for openings, suggesting that there are more openings than closures.  Clever but perhaps slightly deceptive.

“talk of 600 libraries closing is very well wide of the mark”. Well, yes it would be, if ever someone actually said it.  The figure is from an estimate from CILIP of libraries under threat made last year.  Not closed. We know from media reports that 377 have either closed or are under threat at this moment in time.  These are the cases where the media are already involved.  Speaking personally, though, I am actually surprised that the figure from reports is not currently 600.  Of course, this could have something to do with the massive public protest when libraries do close and the legal actions that the public have paid for to stop them doing so.  Certainly, it has nothing to do with Ed Vaizey.
“In fact, we have taken action to support libraries. We have given responsibility to support them to the Arts Council, which gives libraries and cultural organisations the chance to work together.”  With £3m rather than the £13m that the MLA had for the same purpose.  Also, libraries and culture are not the world’s safest mix at the moment, considering the Government is massively cutting its spending on the Arts and, through the withdrawal of tax incentives, cutting private spending on them as well.

“We have funded two development programmes to share best practice between library authorities.”  Really, providing two chances for senior staff to send information with eachother is the best you can do?
“ACE is undertaking extensive consultation on what library services will look like in the future so we can anticipate their needs.” In a time of national crisis, another consultation is all we need.  Especially as none of the other ones resulted in anything.  It is well known that the best excuse for doing nothing is to launch a consultation or an enquiry.  It’s also, due to reasons covered earlier, not the best funded consultation. For example, the public consultation uses a barely changed free blogging format.  It also seems to be heavily biased, if the blog posts are anything to go by, to big airy subjects with only a tenuous basis for the reality on the ground.
“And we are working on specific programmes to give libraries further support”.  Presumably, support including guidelines training for volunteers and how to get by on book donations.  Expect big-sounding initiatives with no real funding behind them.  Words like “challenge” and “transformation” will undoubtedly be used.

“There are dozens of national programmes like World Book Night which support reading“.  Like, for instance, BookStart which had its funding halved in the first year that the current Government took office and would have lost it all without massive protest.

“And with a network of almost 3,500 libraries in England alone, many places where reading can be supported and encouraged.” But not, one fears, for much longer.
“The Brent campaigners could take Mr Vaizey to the empty buildings. The Gloucestershire campaigners could detail their long battle to protect the service in their county. The Friern Barnet campaigners could detail their struggle to keep a beloved library open. In Liverpool we could take Ed on a tour of three lost branches. Of course some new libraries have opened, but that is only part of the story. What we need to hear from the Minister is how the experience of the best library services is generalised so that the worst are brought up to that standard. Furthermore, the narrative is not simply about physical buildings that have closed or may close. It is also about the slashed opening hours, the redundant librarians, the reduced book stock.”  Alan Gibbons.  See also a summary of the situation provided by Desmond Clarke.

News

  • “Coarse language” and violence  top list of UK parents’ complaints about books - Guardian.  Reports on yesterdays Telegraph article on challenges to book titles in UK libraries, apparently gained via Freedom of Information requests.  Voices for the Library says “No professional librarian would withdraw a book due to a complaint unless it was under exceptional circumstances. Books may get temporarily withdrawn whilst policies are consulted, but it is exceptionally rare for permanent withdrawal. In the case of most books, they will be returned to the shelves in reasonable time” … “Clark expressed the concern that the growing tendency of councils to hand libraries over to volunteers would make the issue worse. “Community libraries will make withdrawal of books (or censorship) more common as the staff, unlike librarians, are not bound by professional ethics”. 
“So that’s 150 complaints about children’s books between 98 boroughs over 5 years. My maths gives out here but it doesn’t sound as if anyone is exactly overwhelmed with Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells-type missives” Comment on LIS-PUB-LIBS.

  • IA greatest hits: the Apple way for libraries (a manifesto?) - Information Activist Librarian.  Interesting points of view pointing out a possible future for libraries.
  • Library members can now borrow books from any library throughout Ireland - Information Daily.  Citizens of Eire and the Northern Ireland can now use their library card to borrow books from anywhere on the island.“Libraries are at the heart of local communities. They deliver an important public service. It’s a positive step that book borrowing services are available across Ireland. Library members, north and south will be able to use their nearest or most convenient library, or a library where they go on holiday. There is a lot to be gained from an all-Ireland approach which will improve the delivery of key public services.”
  • Three unwritten rules I think you should know about using yout library (it wasn’t like this in my day)Nilam Ashra-McGrath.  Unwritten rules are (a) appear quiet while not actually being quiet (e.g. typing, texting, etc) “Libraries are still sanctuaries, but now they come with a cloud of white noise”, (b) bring something (food, drink, bag, phone), (c) romance goes on.  “The aim of these rules isn’t to mystify, they’re just there to help you make sense of a diminishing world. Don’t let the changes happening to your library put you off using them, just make use of your library while you can.”.  [Not sure if I agree with the first and last rules: "my" library is loud, ideally with a happy buzz, except in the reference section and there is nothing more important than books, not even romance].

Local News

  • Brent – Art work responds to Brent library closures - Harrow Observer.  “Local artist, Mali, created the work in reaction to Brent Council’s unpopular decision to close half of the borough’s libraries, despite fierce opposition from library users. Mali has wrapped up books in hessian to ‘represent the impossibility of access to culture that the closing down of libraries represents’. The work will be on show at The BAR Gallery, Willesden Green, from May 8 to June 1 and admission is free. A spokesman for the gallery said: “The books are there for you to read, but you can’t open them and they become useless and unwanted.”
    • Temporary reading room in Wembley opened by Friends of Barham Library - Brent & Kilburn Times.  Library “closed down last year by Brent Council alongside Cricklewood, Kensal Rise, Neasden, Preston and Tokyngton libraries in a move which will save the local authority £1m. The new facility, which will be open on weekends only initially, will offer a variety of activities including free talks and “read-ins” while residents are also encouraged to bring books their own books to add to the growing collection.”
  • Kent – Library and history centre opens in Maidstone - BBC.  “Archives that stretch about 14km (9 miles) have been housed in a new library centre opened in Kent. The Kent History and Library Centre in James Whatman Way, Maidstone, has been built to protect and display the historic documents.”
  • Oxfordshire – Oxford submits bid to become World Book Capital - BBC.  “The designation is given to cities to promote reading and literature. Oxford is aiming to become the first English-speaking location to hold the title. If successful, a programme of events would be staged, including conferences, festivals, plays and writing competitions. Bid director Kathelene Weiss said the events planned would “promote a love of reading” in the city.”
  • Somerset – County Council library survey under way - BBC.   “Last November a judicial review ruled a decision to withdraw funding to 11 libraries in the county was “unlawful”. Councillor Christine Lawrence said: “Our aim is always to deliver the best possible service within the resources we have.” The Conservative-led authority cancelled its plans to cut £1.35m from its library budget as a result of last year’s ruling.”
  • Telford & Wrekin – Library hours could be cut to save cash - Shropshire Star.   “The borough’s nine libraries are currently open for an average of just over 32 hours a week, which could be reduced to an average of just over 27 hours a week.”