A major effort to improve and protect public libraries was announced today in a joint conference by:

  • Janene Cox, President of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL)
  • Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture
  • Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library
  • Miranda McKearney OBE, Director of The Reading Agency
  • Nicky Morgan, Director of Libraries at Arts Council England.

A summary of what is planned is here and a full description is here.  I’m going to look at the good bits and then into the not so good bits in turn.  I will, as tradition dictates, start with the Pro:

In favour of “Libraries of the 21st Century”

If you’re looking for a really short summary: it’s good.  There’s a lot of positive stuff in here, packaged under the headings of health, reading, information and digital.  It’s also, thank goodness, not local but something national and with lots of partners, offering easy wins when it comes to best practice and economies of scale.  It’s ambitious in scope and aims to demonstrate to all and sundry that libraries are still relevant and important.

Of course, if you saw the news reports, you’d think it was only about the launch, or re-launch, of Books on Prescription.  This is where doctors etc can “prescribe” books to those with mild or moderate mental health problems, which will be purchased by the library authority.  Books will include 30 medical volumes on specific conditions and also “mood boosting books” by such as Jo Brand and Bill Bryson.  It started in Wales in 2003 and became national there in 2005.  Some English authorities took it up at or shortly afterwards but it fizzled out in many of them. So we’re only seven years behind the times.  However, I’ve seen it in practice and it works. It gets people into libraries who would never have gone in otherwise and they keep on coming back.

There’s a big difference between its first abortive introduction and now.  Back then, it was an offhand “that sounds like a good idea” promotion while now it’s a national thing.  It’s also, very importantly, backed by some big organisations including he Department of Health’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Programme; the Royal College of Psychiatrists; the Royal College of Nursing; the Royal College of General Practitioners; The British Psychological Society and Mind. Not only that but it will signposted by NHS Choices, the Department of Health’s public web portal.

Laura Swaffield, who very kindly represented Public Libraries News at the press conference, thinks this is important.  She reported that “your enterprising head of service (if you’ve got one) can go to the NHS (if they can find it) or the council (it’s got a public health role now, remember) and say: ‘Give me some lolly and I’ll help you tick some boxes.’ That’s the kind of game you have to play these days.”.  There’s a lot of that in this report, by the way.  The SCL is learning to play the game.  Faced with the extinction of the profession, those at its top have put some serious work into this and they are to be applauded. It’s …

“… a response to the challenging times we find ourselves in. We’re aware there are less of us as librarians, and we’re trying to capitalise on strengths that we have.” Janene Cox

Another big initiative that is going to save a building or two is the imminent library role in delivering universal credit.  When this benefit comes into force later this year, there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of people suddenly in need of an internet connection and, probably, some help to allow them to do what they have to do … and libraries are going to be there helping them, providing internet access, filling in forms and signposting to local agencies.  Suddenly, libraries are going to have a very clear and important role, delivering a vital plank in the government agenda.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.  It looks like even the minister for libraries is on side:

“Libraries continue to be an essential part of our local communities. They entertain and educate, they act as meeting places and important sources of local information. “The four Universal Offers clearly shows the range of services libraries now offer and this national approach will help ensure all libraries keep pace with these changing demands.” Ed Vaizey

Those behind the initiative have worked out that it makes sense to work together.  It’s cheaper and has more impact.  Those who have been banging on for years about the need for a national development agency for libraries – now a plank of the Labour libraries policy – will think that their dream has come true early. It’s like everyone has got together and suddenly started singing from the same hymn sheet.  It’s certainly music to the ears of the Arts Council:

“We look forward to working with SCL on these national offers. After extensive research, we will be publishing Envisioning the library of the future in Spring – and it is great to see how well the Universal Offers play into our future plans. From Envisioning, we have found that this collaborative work is necessary to ensure that libraries thrive and survive in the face of this challenging economic situation, and technological and societal change. The libraries sector needs to have a joined-up approach – because together, we are stronger.”” Nicky Morgan, Arts Council England

Optimism permeates the report, even though there’s an element of Third World War survivors working together in order to salvage what is good from a devastated landscape about it.  People who work every day looking at how to cut budgets have found the time to look up, work out what they key sales points should be now and in the future and they’ve gone for it.  Which is good, because libraries are pretty much doomed otherwise.  It’s particularly reassuring to see someone who seriously knows cuts when he sees it – he’s in charge of libraries and stuff for Newcastle – able to find a glint in the clouds:

“This age of austerity will end; we have to think about the future. Let’s not implement cuts in a way that ends up with a uniformly grey, dull offer to the public, without any real social impact. We must hang on to the sparkle in the new look reading service we’re creating. There is evidence of a huge public demand for our reading groups, author events, rhyme times, reading challenges, festivals. The new strategy we’re proposing is about us all putting our collective energy into afew really big things to keep the sparkle going” Tony Durcan, Chair of the Books and Reading Group, Society of Chief Librarians”

I want to pause for a moment, think about the words “keep the sparkle going”, cherish it, and then move on.  OK, now I’ve recovered my breath, I’ll continue.  There’s come big offers in here.  You’ll find free online access as standard.  You’ll even find that lending out of e-readers is mentioned.  That as a standard to aim for coming at a time when almost no-one in the UK is doing it is nothing if not ambitious.

This has been enough to get even some people not normally associated with being cheerleaders for chief librarians getting on board.  Here’s Laura Swaffield again and, remember, she’s the Chair of the Library Campaign:

“To be honest, it’s a really good package, putting together lots of initiatives & resources. Some are new (and therefore even more impossible than the others). Others have been rattling around for years in this or that authority, largely wasted because nobody has previously put them together into a coherent framework that other library services could access & use.” Laura Swaffield

Of course, she said a bit more than that but it was a bit more negative.  So now, it’s time, ladies and gentleman, if you dare, to delve into the dark side.  Steel yourselves.

The problems, otherwise known as “offering a new dress to a plague victim”.

The big one.  The seriously big one is “too little too late“.  Laura goes on from that nice quote above to say:

“It’s just tragic that this potentially useful tool comes out when most library services are desperately fire-fighting, never mind improving their ‘offer.”

She also says it’s “Like offering a nice new dress to a plague victim” (nice turn of phrase) and “If they’d done it 10, 5 or even 2 years ago, it would have been a great way to give libraries tools to improve – and a great way to get through to councils what their libraries can do. It’s a bit late now, alas, alas.”.  There’s a lot more in this vein.  Here’s Shirley Burnham:

“SCL, you should have fought to the death for your Service – fought for your excellent staff – fought for greater funding of literacy and access to knowledge.”

… and here’s Desmond Clarke:

“This initiative does nothing to help confront the crisis facing public libraries. CIPFA confirmed that 200 libraries closed last year and Public Libraries News reports that more than 300 will close or transfer to volunteer management this year. Most worrying, some local government officers are saying that worse is to come as the cuts deepen. The question being asked is when will the reality of what is happening in many authorities be recognised by the DCMS, SCL and ACE, and how do they intend to ensure that a viable, comprehensive and efficient  service. That is the “universal” offer that should be available to all whatever their post code. It is also the duty prescribed in the 1964 Act.”

If one was being cruel, one could describe this as the “it’s like watching a dodo flap its wings” argument.  It’s too late, my friend bird: but I’m an optimist at heart so I won’t. You don’t have to have been reading this blog for a couple of years to realise, though, that libraries in a bad way.  For some authorities, the libraries have effectively gone apart from the big ones, That quote from Janene Cox about having less librarians: she’s not kidding. A lot of what is being planned relies on trained and qualified staff and, well, in some areas, sorry, there ain’t any.

“Laudable aspiration, but will there be any experienced, qualified librarians left to deliver the offer?” comment on Lis-Pub-Libs

There’s also a big problem, to the universal offers.  You see, they’re not universal. There’s no compulsion to individual authorities to sign up to them.  Nothing bad will even be said about authorities who don’t.  That’s not the game.  We’re in a world of localism where there are no standards and authorities can do what they like.  Which means that if an authority has no money or other priorities then the new “Universal offers” can go whistle.

Let’s look at the figures. While 98% have signed up to one of the offers, one-fifth have not signed up to the “information offer”.  That’s the one about universal credit.  Why?  We don’t know.  If you’re a local library authority, you don’t have to have reasons.  But I bet they’re in some way financial.  This seems to be the reason why only half have signed up to second half of digital offer,  This is the bit which talks about the loan of e-readers and free internet access to all, at least for a bit of time.  Money is involved and, in an age of austerity, money talks and universality walks.  Having said that.  Hey, get real here.  What did you expect.  Laura again:

“As we will never get any proper standards for libraries – or any help from the DCMS, no matter how much damage is done to them – this voluntary signing up is the nearest thing people in England will get to a tool for measuring their service’s performance.”

I’ve mentioned the lack of librarians already.  There’s volunteers about and it’s unclear as to how they fit in.  At all.  Presumably those libraries which councils have declared are statutory (and, yes, that’s largely how it now works) will also be part of the universal offer.  Or perhaps they won’t be.  We don’t know.  If they’re not then we’re looking at yet another tier of service.  We’re going to have a Heinz library service.  There could be 57 different types, sometimes possibly in the same authority.  Listen to Ed Vaizey in this radio clip waxing lyrical about how great volunteers are about giving health advice if you don’t believe me:

“Volunteers help out in citizen’s advice bureaus in terms of helping people with advice on a whole range of different issues so I wouldn’t denigrate the work of volunteers.” Ed Vaizey

There’s a man with private health insurance.  Moving on, there’s also people who plain don’t agree that the policies of libraries should be focused on such things as health and benefits.

“There are some very clear priorities for what should be done in our public library service – and they are not these being vaunted by the DCMS, the SCL and the Reading Agency. If times are austere and budgets have to be cut, then those responsible must focus properly on the things that matter and not parade themselves in front of the grant givers and the fanciful social agenda makers of government departments  – the public deserve much better .” Tim Coates

Finally, there’s the “what on Earth are they smoking?” criticism.  To campaigners on the ground, seeing libraries close (Bolton) or being reduced to understaffed shells (Croydon) or being passed to local private concerns (Lewisham) this report looks disturbingly like Cloud Cuckoo Land:

“I fail to see how this deals in any way with the problems we are facing.L ewisham lost 5 council run libraries.  The community run libraries, by volunteers are not substitutes and in no way compensate for what was lost.  The remaining council libraries are hanging by a thread. Do any of the people who write this stuff proof read it and understand what it actually means to library users on the ground?  They are beginning to look as if they are joining the Jeremy Hunt school of public representative, but at least it is likely he will be out of a job in 2015. And it is not just Lewisham, the public library service is being killed off and we are watching it happen.” Patricia Richardson, Lewisham campaigner

“Giving hard pressed library staff more to do, particularly where it requires, increasing the amount of sensitive data held, is a recipe for disaster.  The hollowing out of services in Croydon has meant that even experienced staff have made errors or perhaps they have not been properly trained … God help us what unskilled untrained volunteers might do! Of course none of this would be an issue in a comprehensive library service, run by sufficient numbers of professionally qualified and suitable trained staff working who worked alongside volunteers. A laudable idea but in practice I see many pitfalls where badly damaged library services will struggle to live up to these offers”.” Elizabeth Ash, Croydon campaigner

“Fiddling while Rome burns. Branch libraries – not sexy to ACE – are closing and will continue to close and the service will not only not be comprehensive and efficient but will not be accessible to all who wish to use it, in breach of that all too frequently ignored limb of the duty imposed on local authorities under s.7 of the 1964 Act.” Geoffrey Dron, Bolton campaigner


I, for one, welcome our new Universal Offers.  For one thing, it sits ill to criticise those in the SCL or ACE for not doing anything and then criticise them for when they try to do something.  Faced with a crisis in libraries that now only the Government refuses to recognise, we need all the help and ideas we can get and those on offer here are better than most.  By linking in libraries to health and to benefits, senior librarians are throwing ropes out from the raft on to larger, more sturdy, vessels. There’s a pile of good ideas and proven initiatives here that are going to do a power of good. Chief librarians are never going to rebel, they’re never going to be campaigners but, here and now, they’re being advocates and leaders and even semi-realistic ones, providing weapons for those still in the fight.  To finish: it may not be traditional, it may too late but it’s better than nothing and tradition (that is, keeping quiet, being complacent) partly got us into this mess in the first place.  Well done all involved.  Well, apart from Ed Vaizey, who needs to stop looking and sounding quite so smug.