The little-known (to me, at least) periodical Prometheus has published some incredibly useful articles on the current debate about public libraries.  Starting from the wonderful Philip Pullman speech on Oxfordshire public libraries, it then has articles looking at all sides of the debate.  So there is an article showing that libraries benefit their local communities by 3.5 times their cost.  Another article by Desmond Clarke suggests cutting library authorities by a third, another that social justice is a vital and under-respected aspect of public libraries and also a satirical one at the end that may get some wry smiles from those who have seen the facts at the base of it in harsh practice. A trade unionist view on the neoliberalist attack on public libraries by the Coalition and others is also well worth a read.

The two stand-out articles for me, though, are from people normally victimised by library campaigners.  One of these, Darren Taylor from Eco Computers who has taken over a few Lewisham Libraries, will do a lot to improve his image amongst the readers of these pages.  He comes across as a deep believer in the wonder of public libraries and, if half of what is said is true (and he has had vocal detractors who, I am sure, will deny the facts in the article as soon as they read them) then he is doing great things.  The second article is from the much more hated, by campaigners at least, US company LSSI who pull no punches in attacking “passive” UK public library management and suggest that staff rest on their laurels.  It’s a point of view that is unlikely to win them many converts amongst library staff but, then, it is councillors, not staff, that they need to convince.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that these articles are free to access, although the magazine itself appears to cost a princely £23.  I recommend them to you and have summarised, as is normal, their content below, along with the necessary links:

  • On the closure of public libraries in OxfordshirePrometheus / Philip Pullman.  Author mauls Oxfordshire County Council.  “Do our councillors think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Do they think that all a librarian does is tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers?”.  Oxon’s Big Society £200k fund will be won by those communities most capable to bid for it who are, by definition, the least likely to actually need it.” … “Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life.”

“But I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight. Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re supposed to be looking after. It is too precious to destroy.”

The following are the articles in response:

  • Estimating the economic value of libraries - Prometheus / Shishir Saxena & Andrew McDougall.  Authors have written report for Victoria State Libraries in Australia, saying that people understimate the economic impact of libraries. Even non-users gain significant benefits. “Victorian public libraries contribute an annual benefit of $A681 million to community welfare, compared with the $A191 million expended on service delivery costs. Put another way, for each dollar spent on Victorian public libraries, Victorians stand to benefit by up to 3.5 times that amount.” … “It is also worth noting that 89% of these respondents indicated that libraries were worth more than they said they would pay, but this was all they could afford. In terms of benefit valuation, library users estimated that they would have to spend an average of $A419 per year to access comparable library services from private businesses.”  Looks at different ways of measuring value and its importance.
  • Not a job for those who have brought libraries to crisis - Prometheus / Desmond Clarke.  “Public anger is increasingly being directed at the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, who was vociferous in support of public libraries when in opposition. He and his officials at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and in Arts Council England seem unable to provide leadership or effective advocacy. They sit on the fence taking notes and calling for more research. The Society of Chief Librarians also seems to have been frozen into inaction, though it did announce that 39 refurbished or new-build libraries would be opened this year. Even so, a few shiny new libraries cannot disguise a hinterland laid to waste by the loss of another 600.”.  Argues that the 151 library authorities should be reduced by a third to save “at least £50m” and a further £50m by improving efficiency/IT.  Expensive council central charges can account for up to 25% of costs. “There is urgent need for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Arts Council (as the new strategic agency for libraries) and the Society of Chief Librarians to develop viable models for volunteer-supported libraries. Councils must be told that the decision to simply transfer a local library to a volunteer group does not fulfil their statutory duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service.” Library service standards also necessary and their existence may have aided the increase in usage in Wales.
  • Positive management in libraries: if you build it, they don’t necessarily comePrometheus / Jim Lynch & Stuart St. V. Fitzgerald.  “Both Jim Lynch and Stuart Fitzgerald are UK representatives of the American company, Library Systems & Services. LSSI is a private management company working for local authorities wishing to outsource library services.” … More people should know about libraries but “I blame the management! In particular, I blame passive management.” … “It is no longer enough, if it ever was, simply to open a library and assume that local people will use it. This is passive, paternalistic thinking at best: at worst it is an abdication of responsibility, a top-down, provider-driven approach to match the worst in the education or health care systems.”.  LSSI would sort all this out but it’s “slow going” gaining UK business. Library staff “feel empowered” when LSSI takes over.  More emphasis should be given to “finance, marketing and customer service.”.

“Why should libraries enjoy a privileged and protected position? Why should they refuse to learn from elsewhere? When over 10% of the UK’s public libraries are threatened with imminent closure, it is incumbent on library authorities, on behalf of the communities they represent, to explore thoroughly all alternatives, including that offered by the commercial sector and, in particular, LSSI.”

“FYI LSSI article infers they “manage” Smithsonian Libraries. This is incorrect. LSSI does supplemental contract cataloging. ” Twitter comment.

  • Public library and the social entrepreneur - Prometheus / Darren Taylor.  Boss of Eco Computer Systems looks at the motivation behind taking over three Lewisham libraries.  “This is what libraries are for: giving people a chance. I became passionate about libraries. My aunty worked in libraries for over 30 years and I used to visit as a child.”  Running libraries has been very exciting: “We have IT training for seniors in the libraries, and a community radio station in a space that was not being used before. Apart from the baby bouncing sessions, we have reminiscence sessions, sitting exercises, and reading challenges. We have job clubs, helping people into work and helping people start businesses. We are installing cafes to encourage more reading in the libraries. Lewisham also has 5 million books online. The reader goes online, selects a book and has it sent to the local library. If readers cannot do this for themselves, we train them.”.  Eco Computers have saved these libraries and are making them fully usable once more.

“Let me tell you a story about one of my customers at the Pepys Resource Centre, an elderly man unable to leave his house for more than an hour because he was on an oxygen machine. He had just one hour: he came to my library and had a cup of tea, read and talked to people. He said he would never have been able to leave his house had it not been for the local library.”

  • Public library in the UK’s Big Society - Prometheus / Steve Davies. “The justification for the rundown of public libraries is not simply a part of the austerity programme. It is actually a cynical cocktail of generalised cuts, marketisation, fake ‘localism’ and the Big Society circus. If none of these appears convincing enough, ministers drag in the impact of technology, digitalisation of books and a carefully edited selection of statistics to show the long term decline in library use.” … “The movement in favour of public libraries, and community initiatives where none existed, was part of a great wave of democratic change. The Big Society is the opposite.” … “the neoliberals prefer to forget that the public library service is a municipal and national government response to market failure – the failure of the private and voluntary sectors to supply a much-needed resource on the scale and of the quality demanded.”

“But the attacks on the libraries reveal that all the talk of the Big Society is just cover for the real goal of a small state. The market fundamentalism they preach will create a poorer and meaner-spirited country. Free public libraries are symbols of a democratic society that values openness, equity, access and solidarity. The Coalition is hellbent on creating a society whose symbols will be the gated community, paywalls around information that was once publicly available, and social interaction mediated through the cash nexus. Unless we want to see that, we need to join Pullman and others; we must take a stand in defence of services like public libraries.”

  • Role of public libraries in social justice - Prometheus / John Vincent.  What simple views (article quotes Tim Coates) of public libraries “ignores is the huge role that public libraries play in contributing towards social justice – much of which is carried out in the community, not in library buildings.” … “The real danger of the numbers approach is that provision with, and for, particularly needy and vulnerable people – which can often involve small numbers of individuals and relatively few loans of library material – is pushed to one side as library services try to attract more and more people through their doors.” … “The role of libraries in providing information to allow citizens to make informed choices should not be underestimated.” … “Public libraries and social justice go together; we must continue to fight for the community-based role and the powerful part that libraries can play in it.”
  • Waste of space: a satire of public libraries and public librarians - Prometheus / Iszi Lawrence.  Attacks (jokingly) the move by Chicage mayor Rahm Emanuel, has increased a tax on cars to pay for public libraries. “Is it any wonder the publishing industry is in trouble if people are sharing rather than consuming? This attack on market freedom is outrageous. Everyone understands that freedom means pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and getting yourself to a mall, using a credit card to pay market price, and then watching the debt soar … By undercutting the market price, you are ripping silver spoons from the mouths of job creators … Libraries themselves are leisure centres for the unemployed … I am not calling for all libraries to be closed immediately. In the current economic climate, there isn’t much profit to be made from selling the land. Libraries can be gradually phased out.”

“Over in England, Prime Minister Cameron is forcing the welfare bums to do their own dirty work. They are forced to volunteer to run their own libraries. This is an amazing system. Libraries can run perfectly well without professional staff. Putting books on shelves; you hardly need a qualification for that. It’s much like shelf-stacking in Walmart. And encouraging librarians and library supporters to find their own funding will help them meet the challenges of the job market. This is something we in America should take from our English cousins.”