It’s tough being a Minister having to put as good as possible spin on things when there’s a crisis.  The basic first step, of course. is to deny there is a crisis at all.  This is what Ed Vaizey the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries did when he spoke at the Local Government Association Conference on 7th March.  He admitted that authorities face difficult choices, caused by a crippling budget deficit and that this meant that everyone had to “cut their cloth” accordingly but then put the best possible of glosses onto the effect of this.  This is not to say that the speech falsifies real or important improvements in the sector: Mr Vaizey was quite right that there are some and that they are very real, notably the pilot introducing library cards to all schoolchildren and the work being done partnering libraries with businesses. Rather, the speech resolutely avoided all mention of anything else and then claimed that, therefore, nothing bad was happening. The first half of the speech took this line about the Arts and then the second – more relevant to the purposes of this website – took the same line about libraries.  This must have been especially difficult for Mr Vaizey, and his audience, considering the LGA have just a few months ago said that libraries could become “almost unsustainable” due to cuts and with rises in other costs.

Let’s look at Ed’s point in detail, in the order he mentions them,  I have added in links and put in my comments in italics.

  1. Enterprise hubs e.g. Northamptonshire. “the concept has been so successful, the council is planning to extend the concept by setting up a ‘hatchery’ space in their libraries, providing business incubation for up to one year.”.  Business spaces will be in libraries for use by the under 25s. This looks like a great initiative.  No mention, though, that Northamptonshire is cutting its library budget by 25% by April 2015.
  2. “Local Authorities invested £820 million in libraries last year” which is a large figure but has been significantly reduced in recent years.  Compare with the £1 billion or more that libraries budgets have recently been (e.g. this report claims £1.2 bn four years ago) then add on the effect of inflation for a real sense of the current budgetary situation.. [Addition: please see examination of English library spending published on the subsequent post].
  3. “Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester are all making major investments in their central libraries, and Birmingham’s will soon be the largest library in Europe when it opens this year”. These will be great boosts for the respective cities but one should remember that they were all started under previous government. They would never have got the go ahead under the current regime that Mr Vaizey represents. Moreover, there are fears that the expense of these libraries will result in a major strain being placed on the rest of their respective networks.  Indeed, this aleady being seen:  Birmingham is cutting libraries budget by £2.3m 2013/14 (from £8.5m in 2011/12; Manchester is withdrawing from five libraries and Liverpool is putting ten of its nineteen libraries under threat).
  4. In the spirit of fresh thinking, the Public Service Mutual model is offering another way to maintain the delivery of library, and other services. In York, work is underway developing the first staff-led, public service mutual in library and archive services, with help from the £10 million Mutuals Support Programme”.  Non-profits have critics as well as supporters and there is also the matter of the £250k cut to York libraries budget.  One should also note that non-profits and mutuals are not immune from council cuts – Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust, it has been reported this weekend, is facing some of the deepest cuts to its library services in the country, at 39% over three years.
  5. The Government has appointed a specialist adviser on libraries to work with local authorities and Arts Council England. I encourage you to engage with Yinnon Ezra over the coming months to consider different approaches to library service provision, and new ways of thinking about sustainability”. Yinnon is part-time, the libraries team in Arts Council England has been reduced to five for the whole of England and will soon not have a full-time libraries leadThe “new approaches” mentioned is also suggestive of a coded reference to volunteers replacing paid staff, especially coming so soon after Mr Vaizey spoke in favour of them at the Localities conference.
  6. The Arts Council has established a £6 million fund to support culture in libraries. We have published the CIPFA comparative profile reports for the first time. We are piloting automatic membership for school children and young people”The comparative reports and the automatic membership are both very worthwhile measures. As ever, though, the funding claims require further examination. The ACE funding is over two years and the overall ACE budget has been further cut on top of the reduction in funding to £3m from the £13m that the MLA enjoyed.  By the way, the Book Trust had its funding halved. There are also some concerns about the Governments insistence that public libraries are best fit into the Arts.  Others suggest, that due to the importance of libraries to children and literacy, a better fit would be with the (far more protected) Education sector instead.
  7. “And we are supporting a pilot £1.2 million project to turn six libraries into ‘incubators of innovation – to see them roll-out business support to towns and villages”.  This does indeed look good.
  8. Libraries “In Crisis”? Again, I don’t think so.” See the great majority of non-government reports on UK public libraries in the last two years or alternatively, this list or this one. Alternatively, of course, good news can be found here.  However, it’s hard to argue that the 201 libraries withdrawn last year and the 348 currently under threat represents a system that is not enduring dramatic and almost certainly negative change, at least for the hundreds of localities affected.

Taken as a piece, the message is clear.  Authorities and users need to accept that the cuts are happening, stop griping and find the best way to soften the blow, trying any way they can to limit the impact on voters/users. This includes ways such as taken libraries out of council control – be it giving them to Trusts or the unpaid – that were not considered palatable even a few years ago.  The impression is reinforced by the positive reception that volunteer branches have been given by the Communities Minister, Dan Foster MP. Another thing to note is what Ed does not say: there’s nothing about merging authorities or the importance of skilled paid staff.  With Localism still very much the mantra of all main parties, he may feel that he cannot force library services to go for this economy of scale, thus signifying the at least partial death of his previously much-vaunted Future Libraries Program.  It may, of course, be that this was simply too hard a message for what he wanted in an everything-is-rosy speech.

All of this, the Culture minister believes, should be done while keeping the most optimistic expression that one can have on one’s face at all times.  Authorities and their library staff may see this as instruction to smile through gritted teeth and try to salvage what they can and how they can, while hoping that the results of the next General Election do not mean a continuation of such stormclouds/silver linings doublethink beyond 2015.


“Libraries’ ability to modernise in this age of austerity hinges on their capacity to look beyond their bookshelves, to provide communities with spaces for education, learning, even socialising. One of the secrets of the Whitechapel’s success is that it has got the community behind it, and it does all this and more. “What’s even better is, it’s not alone: 1 in 3 authorities have at least 1 community-supported or managed library operating within their area and we are increasingly moving from libraries run on behalf of their communities to libraries run by their communities.” Dan Foster MP, Communities Minister quoted in Community libraries continue to grow –

  • Crisis, what crisis? Why public sector staff still love their jobs – Guardian / Efficiency and risk hub. “Pollster Ipsos Mori found in 2012 a fall in the number of public sector staff saying they were happy, but also found that pride in public service and sense of personal fulfilment had been holding steady and maybe even increasing.” … “Net public satisfaction with councils is as high as it has been for 30 years.”.  Local councils cutting numbers but other areas (e.g. teachers) stable and more staff have had to be taken on in Department of Work and Pensions.
  • Do something big and bright for the homeless – Financial Times / Letters.  Writer questions the New York Public Library redesign by Norman Foster and suggests that more attention needs to be paid to the branch libraries in the city and the large numbers of homeless using them.  One branch has, apparently, removed soap from its toilets because the dispossessed were using too much of it to wash.
  • Greenest Libraries Have No Walls – Green Prophet (Israel). “This particular project was established to serve Israel’s transitory migrant workers.  Its main thrust is to increase community reading, but it’s execution is inherently “green”:  this project largely depends on natural daylighting, requires no mechanically treated air, and offers abundant opportunity to repurpose and recycle building materials.  That it contributes to enhanced use of existing public space makes it super-sustainable too.”
  • Growth of enterprising community libraries – New Start. “Locality has campaigned for a number of years to raise the profile of communities delivering library services, so we were delighted to convene the largest ever gathering of community libraries at the Whitechapel Idea Store earlier this week.”.  Article expects 425 libraries (12% of the total) to be run by volunteers by end of 2013 financial year. …. “more than 130 delegates from 35 library authorities, 40 community libraries as well as a host of established social and community enterprises” … Ed Vaizey did not grasp desire of volunteer etc groups to move beyond campaigning to “proactively contributing to its evolution”.

“… there is an urgent need to identify appropriate business models for community libraries to render them sustainable in the medium to long term – in particular, where councils have not seen fit to commission services for communities as in Buckinghamshire. And he underlined the needs for dedicated resources and support in the most deprived areas – where the resources are scarcest, the challenges are most acute, but where the value of libraries is potentially greatest.” credited to Steve Wylie, Localities chief.

“Public libraries provide a key, if underused, space for women to gain the skills, self-confidence, and independence needed to regain control of their lives and pave the way for a society free of gender-based violence.”

  • Is Smartsm really smart without Librarians? – Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries. “If there are fewer ‘professional’ specialist staff (Stock Librarians, Cataloguers etc) in the system then who is keeping an eye on what Smartsm tells staff to withdraw from stock?”
  • Libraries, Hackspaces and E-waste: how libraries can be the hub of a young maker revolution – Raincoast Books. A reprint of Cory Doctorow’s article on the need for Maker Spaces and the continuing mission of libraries.  Worth a read if you haven’t already.
  • Little Free Libraries: The Possibilities are Endless – Public Libraries Online (USA). “What started as a memorial has grown to an international movement with over 5,000 free little libraries around the world.”
  • Public libraries of future must ‘navigate real and virtual’ – UKAuthority. “Public library services face a tough job predicting which digital media will be used to access books in the future, but literacy and ‘deep reading’ skills will remain important for society to promote, a UK digital libraries conference has heard.”
  • Tweets from #Edge2013 – James Hargrave’s Blog. (1) Rory Mair suggests problem is demand increasing while budget is decreasing. (2) Birmingham Central Library right at heart of city’s strategy but needs to be digital as well. (3) Manchester Central moving from 70% closed access to 70% open access.  Both quiet + traditional and louder + tech needed. (5) Lanarkshire small new library (5) Annie Mauger of CILIP calls for DWP to pay for librarians to process benefits claims … lots of good stuff here, including Lankes, NYPL …
  • Women’s Library occupation: fighting the cuts on International Women’s Day – Red Pepper. “Previously run by the troubled London Metropolitan University, which is currently being softened up for privatisation, the library was recently transferred to the LSE. The latter plans to incorporate the archives into its own library, shutting down public access and eroding the library’s independence.” … “Far from barricading the door, the occupiers have left it openly accessible, and the occupation has seen lots of supporters dropping by throughout the day.”
  • Worst public library website? – Reddit.  Points and laughs at (mainly US) library websites that could do with a little work. However, it’s not frivolous, the creator of the thread says “Librarians are in the information business, and these sites do little to bolster our profession’s image as cutting-edge professionals.”.


Local News

  • Barnet – Occupation of Friern Barnet Library and future of public services in Britain – World Socialist Web Site. “…this was no victory against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat austerity policies. It demonstrates how clearly the politics of localism and vague professions of anarchism and self-organisation advocated by Occupy play into the hands of the ruling elite and facilitate rather than oppose the destruction of vital services.”
  • Brent – Kensal Rise Library campaigners slam All Souls College over ‘secrecy’ claims – Brent and Kilburn Times. “A wealthy Oxford College planning to sell off two libraries in Brent to property developers has come under fire for refusing to reveal details of an alleged binding agreement.”
  • Brent – Council decision irrelevant for sale of library asset – Harrow Observer. “The Friends of Kensal Rise claim Farrer and Co, the law firm representing All Souls, are withholding the actual agreement between the college and developer Andrew Gillick. Margaret Bailey, chairperson of the Save Kensal Rise Library campaign, said: “We believe that the council cannot properly satisfy itself that the agreement the college has with the developer to purchase Kensal Rise Library is a binding agreement without seeing the document itself.””
  • Dorset – Charmouth Library set to continue – Dorset Echo. Volunteers take over branch: “The library, now known as Charmouth Central, was the busiest it has ever been as residents took a first look at the revamped facility.”  See also Volunteers re-open library after two months of refurbishment – View Online. “The library re-opened following refurbishments, with roof and heating system repairs paid for by Dorset County Council as part of the takeover deal, and internal redecoration and new equipment funded by the Friends.”
  • Islington – Try asking a self-serve kiosk for help? – Islington Tribune / Letters.  Unison’s view on installation of self-service machines: “Only 15 per cent of those who responded to the library consultation in 2011 expressed an interest in self-serve.” … “Although we fundamentally oppose the introduction of self-serve we would at least expect the public to be given a choice between using a staffed counter or an unstaffed kiosk.”

“So the next time you visit your local library, ask yourself: Do I want to be served by a member of staff or a kiosk, and if the answer is “a member of staff”, then please ask to do so and raise your concerns with your councillor and MP.”

“We would rather have a service in another building than no library at all”

  • Sefton – Action group to form to protect threatened Crosby Carnegie library from closure – Crosby Herald. “Last Thursday plans to close seven libraries in the borough, including one in Crosby and Litherland library, were controversially passed. But supporters of the historic building are eager to take advantage of a last- minute reprieve and come up with a “feasible and sustainable” rescue plan.”
  • Sefton – We need you to help save our libraries: Volunteer effort needed to help determined Southport library rescue operation – Southport Visiter. ““I am very surprised the Labour council continued to adopt Option B when we could have seen flexibility at the full council, but I applaud Cllr Dowd for his intent to listen to our feasible and sustainable proposals. “With volunteers in a structured manner supporting the professional librarian service we can save our libraries at this crucial time in the review process.””
  • Wakefield – New home for town’s library – Express series. “The Hill Top library will move into the sports centre next door later this year to make way for a retail development on land known locally as The Close.”
  • Westminster – Cuts arts funding by 100% – Stage. ““We are literally choosing between arts projects and keeping a library open, or retaining gangs workers on our estates, or running our meals on wheels service. There is no easy answer for the savings that are required, but we have chosen to protect services that are most vital to the vulnerable in our society.”
  • Wigan – Library opening hours to change – Bolton News. “the council says it is standardising opening hours so it can provide a modern service for residents while meeting tough financial challenges. Work already undertaken has included co-locating services in library buildings, relocating libraries to other buildings and introducing self-service – saving more than £1.4 million.”
  • Worcestershire – Mobile library hits the roads – Malvern Gazette. “The bus is the latest addition to Worcestershire County Council’s existing fleet of five vehicles. It will enable the council’s libraries and learning department to work with other organisations to allow customers only borrow books, but also access other services.”