One of the most influential and famous Conservative websites, called Conservative Home, has produced an article based on the Public Libraries News lists of closed libraries to argue that “Library closures are overwhelmingly taking place under Labour councils“.  It suggests that the headline figure of closures used by Dan Jarvis uses – which includes those libraries now run by unpaid local users – is misleading because “Often when the community takes over a library from the council it not just saves money but does a better job. There is more innovation and the number of users rises.”  The article points out the that Public Libraries News tally shows that more closures are occurring in Labour areas than Conservative ones.

So what should we make of this? Well, on one level it shows the joy of political football and how statistics can be used to show anything one wants to if one tries hard enough.  On another it serves a useful purpose, not least in its comments section, in showing the arguments used in favour and against volunteer-run libraries.  In fact, the (as I type) 33 comments after this piece so neatly show the political views and arguments on both sides that I feel the need to list them here:

In favour of the article

  • The Labour party want to stop independent thinking so closing libraries makes sense to them.
  • It’s better to have big central libraries with “community libraries” than existing poorly funded model.

“I’m a Librarian. I have worked in public, education and private Libraries all over the country and most public libraries are very badly run. The managers are dreadful, the staff are lazy, the design of buildings are quite often useless for a library.  Most small libraries should be sold off and the money put into making the larger libraries better and providing mobile libraries.”

  • Labour councils could have made cuts elsewhere, not in libraries.  They prioritise funding for “illiterate unemployable slobs who watch Jeremy Kyle rather than read books”.
  • Volunteering is not a new experiment and has been going on for years: it’s called “charity”.
  • Legal challenges against closure “waste time” and are “a waste of taxpayer’s money”.
  • The success of volunteer run libraries should inspire council-run libraries to be “even better than they are now”.
  • Borrowing £1 trillion is an “untested experiment” too.
  • The Berkeley volunteer library (Conservative) will employ a paid librarian.
  • The philanthropic Nineteenth Century model, such as is shown with volunteers, is a good one to use and does not “rely on the coercion of the state”.

“Labour councils have built their own municipal castles to feather their own nests at the expense of the public. They will cut services rather than their own inflated staffs and salaries.”


Against the article

  • Labour councils are facing disproportionate grant cuts. [See this Guardian article for more information]
  • Volunteer-run libraries are untested and cannot be seen as a safe alternative to council-run branches.
  • The Community Knowledge Hub website, which is cited in the article as giving positive examples of volunteer-run libraries is biased as it was established to encourage more volunteer-run libraries.
  • Bexley volunteer library cited approvingly in article is one with at least some paid staff.  It is also in a Labour area.
  • Conservative councils would have closed far more (e.g. Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Somerset) if locals had not protested and/or taken legal action to stop them.
  • Volunteers are being forced to run libraries on a “run them yourselves or lose them” basis.

“As an avid library supporter who values the professional role of librarians and experienced library staff it is pitiful watching an experienced member of staff trying to teach an ill-equipped volunteer to scan books in and out.”

  • Surrey told users of 10 libraries they had to take them over or they would be closed.
  • The Conservative Secretary of State has failed to step in to stop any closures or cuts anywhere.
  • All parties have used libraries as a political football for years, with this just being the latest example.
  • Doncaster closures (noted as having a “majority” Labour Council in the article) happened due to an English Democrat Mayor being able to over-rule that majority and go ahead with closures in the teeth of their opposition, even to the extent of being taken to court.
  • Volunteer libraries in Swindon (Conservative) and Warwickshire (Conservative) are being cut due to failure to find enough volunteers.  One in Dorset (Conservative) recently closed due to lack of volunteers.

“The truth of the matter, as the list of community libraries I provided demonstrate, is that a volunteer run library does not appear to be a long-term sustainable option. It’s merely prolonging the closure to a later date. Sure, it’s not a closure now…but it is one in the near future.”

  • Figures on Public Libraries News have been tested by an independent organisation: the result of which is here.
  • Volunteer run libraries are not a sustainable long-term solution

“The staff in the rural libraries taking most of the cuts are low paid library managers, the number of volunteers required to maintain the hours for a library swallows up the minimal cost savings.”

“Politicians of all the main parties are regressing libraries back to the philanthropic model of the 19th century at a time when they are needed most”

“This is the worst article to appear on ConHome for a long while. It is pure partisan rubbish, marshalling some unreliable facts to make the most facile of political points. It is childish and misleading. We need libraries because sadly some people will read any old rubbish on the internet and think its true. Like this article.”

My conclusion

What is clear from having read every media report on libraries for the last couple of years (they’re all indexed on my website) is that local authorities are responding to the set of conditions set them by the current Government. These conditions for libraries, broadly, are:

– A 28% cut in funding, with possible further cuts. These cuts tend to be higher in urban areas than rural ones.
– The clear intention of the Secretary of State not to intervene in any authority regardless of any cuts/closures proposed and despite his statutory powers enabling him to do so.
– A belief, in practice (if not all the time in speech) that unpaid staff can deliver the same or better results than paid staff and a willingness to close libraries in those places that do not have the necessary volunteer base.
– A belief that deep cuts can be made in council expenditure without an adverse effect on the front line. If the front line is affected, it is the fault of the local council in not making the right cuts rather than the cuts themselves.

Some Labour councils have some terrible records when it comes library closures. Some have great records. Some Conservative councils have terrible records, some have great records. What is clear from reading the reports is that whichever party is in opposition attacks the party in Council HQ of unnecessarily closing/cutting libraries and say they would do better if they were in power. This is true of all three parties.

The problem, if there is one (I lead it to you to decide) is not a local one but a national one.