An article called “A Vision for a 21st Century Library” has been published on the New Labour pressure group website Progress

Why is it important?  
The article is written by Dan Jarvis MP, the new shadow minister for libraries, and represents the first clear guide to current Labour thinking on libraries.  It also announces that he will be writing a report of the same name after researching the issue more.  It emphasises that Labour is against “shortsighted” policies of cuts and closures and, above all, is doing something in comparison to the inaction of the current Government.
What does it say?
  • Libraries will change, with the emphasis being on access to information and the internet.
  • They’re a unique public space, with special importance for encouraging the young to read and as a neutral ground which encourages a strong sense of community ownership.
  • Challenges include – spending cuts (“You can’t ignore the need for cuts”), internet access, ebooks. “the idea of going to a library and trawling the shelves for something to borrow seems to some an outdated practise”
  • Desired aims are to enhance social mobility and personal development.
  • New libraries like Canada Water (Southwark) and  Idea Stores (Tower Hamlet) seen as examples of best practise.
  • A report called “A Vision for a 21st Century Library” has been commissioned.
  • Co-location seen as a good idea, merging a library with a museum or advice bureau etc to share costs.  Similarly, libraries should be more used by government services.
  • Closures are too often seen as an easy way out.  “When they shut their doors they will be lost forever. Long after the deficit has been paid off and the rhetoric has been forgotten, communities will still be feeling the effects of these shortsighted policies.”
  • Volunteers are fine as complementary to staff but not to replace them.  “Volunteers are important and welcome additions, but I have yet to meet a group who would not rather be supporting a service adequately funded by the state.”
  • The Government is not doing enough/anything to stop preventable library closures. 
  • Dan Jarvis is visiting libraries over the next few months and welcomes input “from anyone who cares about libraries”.
  • An acceptance that large-scale cuts need to be made.  The budget cuts to be implemented by local government, and that the shadow minister does not seem here to oppose, will mean a 27% cut over four years (plus large cuts due to inflation).  These are seriously going to damage any service, especially one as dependent on buildings, constant replenishment of stock and long opening hours as a public library.  To pretend that new ways of thinking could get around the most devastating peacetime cuts in history is simply that – a pretence.
  • Co-location is seen as a good idea.  They are admittedly, sometimes an unblemished success, when the co-locating service is complementary to the library and, to be fair, the article lists many that are.  However, this is not what is often happening currently in practise.  In reality, libraries are often being crammed in with other less complementary services which affect the long-term viability of the service.  As Worcestershire shows today, with a One Stop Shop merged with a library simply to cut costs, all is not rosy wtih co-location. 
  • A liking for big libraries.  Canada Water is a new showpiece flagship library that does its job well but is not the same as a small community library which are always the ones currently under threat.
  • The internet and ebooks have reduced the need for libraries.  It is unquestionable that the internet has greatly reduced the number of enquiries in libraries.  However, libraries have found a new major customer base in providing internet access, often for free, for the fifth of the population who do not have it.  Also, if one can afford an e-reader and ebooks then one would normally have bought one’s books anyway.  Libraries are not, and never have been, in that market.  Libraries are for those who cannot afford (or who do not wish to buy) an e-reader or the instant gratification of all the new e-book they want when they want them.  Again, to be fair, the shadow minister does acknowledge this later on.
  • That it has been written at all.  Labour has done very little so far to take advantage of the tremendous ill-feeling that library cuts and closures have caused  and that has severely affected the party loyalties of many library users.  It is unfortunate for the party that some of the leading library closers are Labour authorities – notably Brent – and thus the chance to create clear blue (red?) water between it and the coalition parties had been largely (to possibly overextend the metaphor) muddied over the last year.
  • Putting the boot into the current Ministers.  Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt are now widely reviled by library users for their inaction.  Anything that draws attention to this and embarrasses them further, possibly even into action, is a good thing.
  • The importance of libraries is recognised.  The article is spot on about the importance of libraries to children, the less wealthy, adult learners and to communities.
  • Volunteers.  It is completely correct about this issue.  Volunteers are fantastic as an addition to existing library staff but often feared as disastrous as a long-term widespread replacement to it.  The Government, and many councils, appear to be deliberately blackmailing local communities to work in libraries so that paid and skilled staff can be made redundant.
  • That it is being researched.  It sounds like the Dan Jarvis is going to do his homework and actually see things for himself, not just spout off a good line and cross his fingers. 
A good and promising start.  Campaigners should be heartened by this and the increased pressure on the Government that it represents.  They should also make sure to invite the shadow minister to hear their thoughts, concerns and to above all invite him to visit their local, smaller, libraries to show why small is sometimes beautiful and that co-location and the switch to ebooks will not cure all ills.   At the same time, the record of Ed Vaizey, who said and did all the right things while in opposition but has so far done negligibly littler while in office, remains the spectre at this New Labour feast.  However, library supporters will be largely happy and positive about what they have seen so far from this as yet little-known shadow minister for libraries … and that is no bad thing.  We need all the good news we can get.

See also

New shadow libraries minister condemns library closures – BookSeller.   Article by Dan Jarvis MP contrasted very favourably with inaction of libraries minister Ed Vaizey.