Brian Ashley

Brian Ashley

Campaigners were given a rare chance to talk to a senior public libraries figure on Saturday 29th June 2013 when Brian Ashley, the lead for public libraries (and chief of the Midlands region) of Arts Council England kindly agreed to over two hours of questions at a meeting arranged by the Library Campaign.  A summary of the meeting is below.  The key points I took from it is that there is no hero coming to save libraries, that savage cuts will continue to happen and that the best way for library authorities and campaigners to cope is to be as active as possible if libraries are going to survive.

The information below is taken from notes made at the time and cannot claim to be a verbatim or 100% accurate record of what was said or happened.


  • Brian Ashley and panel including:
  1. Trevor Craig: Oxfordshire campaigner and owner of the Question Everything blog.
  2. Desmond Clarke: became a campaigner when he became chair of Libri, was boss of part of Thompson Reuters and a director of Faber and Faber.
  3. Alan Wylie: Reference librarian, member of Voices For The Library and Speak Up For Libraries.  Owner the Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries blog.
  4. Ian: Branch library manager. owner of the Public Libraries News blog and a member of Voices for the Library.
  • Library Campaign leadership including Laura Swaffield and Elizabeth Ash (also a Croydon campaigner and a member of Speak Up for Libraries). Alan Templeton (also of Camden Public Libraries User Group).
  • Library volunteers including:
  1. Jim Brooks, Little Chalfont Community Library, volunteer run library for six years;
  2. Hazel Robinson, Charmouth Library, Dorset. Now one of eight volunteer run libraries;
  • Other interested parties, being either campaigners, volunteers, councillors, ex library staff or a combination from Library for Life for Londoners, Haringey, West Norwood. Mayfair, Essex, Northamptonshire, Swiss Cottage, Ealing, Waltham Forest, Barking and Dagenham, Highgate
  • Joshua Farrington of the BookSeller magazine and Chie Suga, a visiting librarianship lecturer from Japan.
  • There were also a few listening in on the internet.
Some of the library campaigners attending the event.

Some of the library campaigners attending the event.



Laura Swaffield started the afternoon by saying that this represented a fresh start with Arts Council England, whose relations with campaigners was “something of a car crash” before.

Brian’s opening statement

I came here for a conversation. It;s not all about me: there is a distributed style of leadership in public libraries, like it or not, and I’m not entirely sure superheroes achieve much anyway. We share a desire for libraries to thrive. I have had 30 years managing and being responsible for libraries. There is a complicated landscape: national, community politics, economics, social change, technological change. Reality has to be part of the theme of this afternoon. Libraries ARE closing and libraries are opening too, but not in same numbers. I won’t be one of those people who claim everything is going well with libraries but things are not in the extremes. Not everything is in crisis.

“there is a distributed style of leadership in public libraries, like it or not, and I’m not entirely sure superheroes achieve much anyway” Brian Ashley

Money is one of the important factors: between 2010 to 2016 most library services will lose 30 to 40% budget. The extent varies but few organisations can take a hit in budget of that scale and carry on unchanged, Moreover, those organisations which we could in other times have asked for money from are being cut worse:  the DCMS by 45% over the same period. the DCLH by 60%. There also seems likely to be no return to anything like the previous funding level for years to come and all main parties agree with the cuts. There will be no libraries management development agency under the current government.  Ed Vaziey said he will not do it, even thoguh he had an aspiration for one earlier on in his career. This government is very much about less quangos not more. Leadership is distributed between the DCMS, local authorities, the SCL, CILIP, the British Library and ACE.

“between 2010 to 2016 most library services will lose 30 to 40% budget. The extent varies but few organisations can take a hit in budget of that scale and carry on unchanged” Brian Ashley

The Envisioning the Library of the Future research took place because ACE took over from the MLA. We did not have representatives before. ACE is absolutely up for libraries but also has to learn. Envisioning was part of process. Consensus was missing about what was happening and what to do, with mixed messages being given. There was useful activity but it was not all in the same gear. The research took so long because it was a deep engagement with 800 people in face to face and group reserach, as well as over 10,000 online. It did take too long to do it but we are where we are. We heard loud and clear that someone needed to stand back to emphasise basics.  These basics are a publicly funded service, a trusted space free to enter, the importance of reading and information and culture.  Libraries should be safe spaces physically and increasingly virtual, with an excellent range of stock and well trained staff.  They servce to provide basic skills, literacy and learning, business, personal growth and creativity, health and well being and also access to democracy.

We were never able to replace funding already lost but it can support the reinvention of library services. Libraries are brilliant things, we all have a role to play to reinvent. We probably agree on quite a lot but often we focus on the 3 or 7% we disagree on.

“We probably agree on quite a lot but often we focus on the 3 or 7% we disagree on.” Brian Ashley


Laura asked if library campaigners and volunteers were to be included in future conversation with ACE.  Brian said, yes they would be, but could not go into details as to how.
Laura called the Envisioning report the “Pippa Middleton guide to public libraries” with a quarter of a million pounds being spent on finding out the obvious.  She also said that although ACE said the cuts were temporary, they are actually permanent.

“The Envisioning report is the “Pippa Middleton guide to public libraries” Laura Swaffield

Alan Wylie said that the Libraries of the Future report said that friendly and well trained people were important but didn’t say that they had to be paid. Brian replied that this wording was deliberately intended to be inclusive and that volunteers were not a new phenomenon.

Desmond said that with such big cuts being reality. imaginative solutions were needed and this needed actual, not distributed leadership. Distributed leadership means no leadership. The different bodies are all hobbled in different ways: the LGA has internal problems, at the local authority level there is a very real problem with authorities being even interested in libraries, the SCL represents officers and can’t do much and CILIP is almost becoming a farce unlike the BMA and Law Society. Yinnon Ezra is in the background. The 1964 Act says there should be an advisory body but there is not one. Both SCL and CILIP complain about the lack of leadership.

“Distributed leadership means no leadership. The different bodies are all hobbled in different ways” Desmond Clarke

Brian: A single leader’s merits is debatable but there is no chance of one until the election. There may be a libraries development agency in future but is not in my gift to say. There is a danger in this country of building people up and, when it is discovered that they’re not supermen. they’re then turned on like a pack of wolves.

Trevor said reports are produced that all the same as the previous one. A comment from the floor was that there was need for best practice to be put on a website.  It was also mentioned that Labour is having a policy review on libraries and that Dan Jarvis should be asked to talk to the Library Campaign.  Alan Wylie said that there was a lack of standards and guidelines.


Some of the campaigners before the event. L to R: Elizabeth Ash, Desmond Clarke, Trevor Craig, Alan Wylie and Andrew Coburn

Brian: Should Ace share best practice? Yes and we are. It will come together in time. The Future Libraries projects have evolved into the Libraries Development Initiative, whose results have just come in and will be published soon. The Culture Hive website includes all best practice in the Arts, including libraries.  We understand the need to support volunteer libraries and there will be a creation of a single point for community organisations to go to. The Communities Knowledge Hub is there but you have to pay for it: there are conversations in govt and ace to make this free. There is quite a lot of information out there: Northamptonshire does it too, but I do understand not all of it is available to you.  When it comes to standards, the Labour Government had them but even then they were not uniformly seen as a good thing. They were seen by the current government as not for central government to impose so all swept away.  There is no prospect in the short term of a return to standards.

“There is no prospect in the short term of a return to standards.” Brian Ashley

Desmond asked Brian what outcomes will he have to determine his success.  A questioner from the floor pointed out that standards can be used to close libraries down.

Ba: An updated Libraries Act may not be as desirable as the one we have at the moment. E-books are being looked at.  We cannot commit to campaigners being included in advice and I will not promise anything I cannot deliver.  I would say that the way to measure the success of ACE is to see if in 5 years time, libraries are seen as a success story and not as a crisis story. ACE is not providing a role to the DCMS to superintend libraries and will not comment on individual roles.

I [Ian Anstice] then thanked Brian for being brave enough to come and asked him what were the best practical ways campaigners could follow to help support libraries.  I also stressed the need for more to be put online as this is a tremendous force multiplier for one’s efforts, as can be seen with Voices for the Library and with Public Libraries News.  There was also a need for a neutral source of information as all current sites are biased in some way. I also asked how campaigners would be involved in future discussions.

“The most effective thing for campaigners to do is to hold authorities to account.” Brian Ashley

Brian replied that the voice of the user needs to be heard but that may not be the the same as campaigners. He is only officially starting on Monday and so cannot give detail as to how this will be heard. He paid tribute to his predecessor Nicky Morgan for her previous work in Libraries.  The Culture Hive will help with online stuff but the neutral voice is an “interesting idea”.  What is neutrality? Everyone has an agenda. The most effective thing for campaigners to do is to hold authorities to account. There are already difficult changes going on.  These changes need to be open and straightforward.  Some councils have already been examples of best practice and that has been reflected in relative quiet from the public where changes have been made. Others have not been as open and have had stronger voices in opposition because of it . Library services need to remain in the local sector so can be democratically accountable, anything else is less democratic.

“What is neutrality? Everyone has an agenda.”

“Library services need to remain in the local sector so can be democratically accountable, anything else is less democratic.” Brian Ashley

Laura said people need tools and know what to do.

Jim Brooks: I can’t speak for politicians. I am not a fan of volunteer libraries. They should only exist when there is no other option.  We started running Little Chalfont with volunteers when the council closed it in 2007.  The flood of enquiries about how to run one from other people in other areas started in 2010.  Most of the information on how to do this is now on our site. I met with Ed Vaizey. There’s a strong impression that authorities are just shutting libraries and saying get over it. There is no knowledge and nothing given to people taking over libraries other than Jim. Nick Hurd agreed to help Jim in this regard but too much work still coming to Jim. At a meeting on 11 June, the Government identified there was not much joint thinking.  The Community Knowledge Hub will not to be replaced but a website will be built to list community library stars and useful information.  A panel to give advice to volunteers is nice but is it going to be paid? It’s lots of work.  The Community Knowledge Hub is as useful as it could be and most of the posts are from CKH staff.

“I am not a fan of volunteer libraries. They should only exist when there is no other option.” Jim Brooks, Little Chalfont Community Library.

Others in the audience said the cuts are continuing and campaigners need someone to ensure cuts are proportional.  They need someone to speak up. Desmond said CILIP should do it but they’re not.

Brian said many local chief librarians have done great job of positioning themselves in the authority e.g. by channelling other services into libraries but still maintaining the core service. That is the route to success. If a library service just waits and be done to, well, then, they’re going to be just done to.7

“If a library service just waits and be done to, well, then, they’re going to be just done to.” Brian Ashley

Andrew Coburn asked if ACE was going to pull together distributed leadership?

Brian replied that ACE has the power to convene, to open up partnerships, encourage culture and creativity and to invest to support libraries. The DCMS have said they will be involved. This means there will be sensible partnership conversations and Ed Vaizey has endorsed this. Relationship managers will share factual information with the DCMS but it is up to the Government about how to act.  ACE Libraries is not just the relationship managers and half of Brian: the research team will also do libraries stuff … and other people too.

There was then a claim from the audience that councillors don’t know what s going in libraries.  Libraries are not  just culture but even more so education. By not spending on libraries, there is an enormous cost to the country by not boosting literacy. A councillor then firmly said that he and his colleagues did know about libraries.  Others pointed out to him that this was the case everywhere. Elizabeth Ash said there needed to be a basic offer and that hollowing out is a real concern, with libraries being open but not necessarily adequately staffed or with staff being trained. This results in less usage.  An ex-librarian said that library campaigners should position themselves against all cuts. Hollowing out is the crux. He noted that there was no events development in the area he worked in, now that staff had been lost.  The audience felt that they work very hard work to keep library open. They promote and sign petitions, stand outside libraries and get seen, putting a lot of time in it. Sometimes it does not work regardless of the time put in it.  One said that there was a library authority where the Acting Chief Librarian had been in post for two years and had only ever visited the library he worked in.

Brian: I recognise its not the same everywhere but good is happening as well. Don’t focus on the bad to ignorance of good. People, recognise passion when they see it. Ace recognises the importance of education and literacy. It is not the role of ACE to be individual assessors. Our role is to pose searching questions: have you done research? Where’s the evidence? I have a passion for libraries and it can be frustrating and desperately debilitating. I don’t have easy answers for you. The new structure for ACE starts on Monday.  If we spend a lot of time putting everything online then we’d lose another relationship manager and only have four.

Jim: my experience is that some authorities treat volunteers with contempt, while others – such as Buckinghamshire now – are exemplary. Is it part of your role to share good practice? There is a big variance in authorites giving access to the library management system. I see a danger of it all turning into a patchwork network of parochial local libraries.

Brian: we share best practice but cannot tell authorities what to do. We can put chiefs together to talk and share experience and I have personally sat in a room with two library chiefs, because I recognised one was nine months further down the line than the other one and could share experience.

Laura said that what the afternoon shown is what a complicated picture it is.  She asked for some nitty gritty on what plan Brian had and whether it would involved evidence based research? Trevor said that hard numbers were necessary and noted that closing small branches doesn’t necessarily save money.

Brian said he could not answer that but noted that money for ACE library development (note: this is not an authoritative figure) was around £500k maximum and may be less. Within that, funding is already under way. This includes the Culture Hive, reference online which makes online sources cheaper to all authorities, the ask-a-librarian-online Enquire service and Enterprising Libraries too. We will look to maximise possibilities for libraries to use lottery money to deliver core business e.g. one authority has cleverly been able to get lottery money to help people to get into work by using actors. What I take back from today is how to bring back the voice of the user. We already have officers but not users. Thank to you all, thanks for positive energetic debate and thanks for giving up your time.

“What I take back from today is how to bring back the voice of the user” Brian Ashley

Alan Templeton noted that you get the user group, you deserve. If you have awkward users then you may have an unresponsive council. Alan Wylie pointed out the Unison “the damage” report that is very useful and shows the danger of hollowing out. People should read it.

Brian: I will write note to Laura by end of week to say what I’m doing.