I was very grateful to be invited to be on the panel of the CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Group (PMLG) debate at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this afternoon.  In addition to me (Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News since 2010 and full-time professional librarian since 1994), other members of the panel were

  • Biddy Fisher OBE, Trustee, Denby Dale Community Project*, Past President of CILIP. [*My post initially described the project as just the library: this is incorrect. Although this includes creating a new building to house the library it also involves services provided by two other local charities – the Denby Dale Centre (a service for the old, vulnerable and lonely in the community) and the Kirkwood Hospice. The library is currently staffed with a paid professional librarian – Ed.]
  • Brian Ashley, Director – Libraries, Arts Council England.
  • Andrew Coburn, former Secretary of the Library Campaign and UNISON activist
  • Cllr Cath Pinnock. Kirklees Council.  Soon to be a Liberal Democratic peer in the House of Lords.
  • Darren Smart, Chair, Public and Mobile Libraries Group.

It’s fair to say that all, with the exception of Brian, were speaking from an entirely personal capacity and not speaking for anyone else.  It’s also worth saying that there were, frankly, not that many people there.  Perhaps twenty five in the audience.  But that didn’t stop a lively and well-tempered discussion.  The main points I noted for either side were:

For the motion

  • Democratic control. Councils at least allow some democratic control: and councillors have immense power.  A councillor enquiry means everything else is dropped until it is answered. Accountability is the key argument, aswith other systems the councillors have no direct influence. Ok, sometimes they have too much weight but nonetheless a local representative has the power. Ultimately. There’s also of course a recall after four years but that does not exist under any of the other channels. What’s crucial is user experience and that the local authority remains accountable. Some are brilliant, some are utterly dispiriting but they are all accountable.
  • Atomisation. Concerned about the plethora of alternative solutions and the effect on the national network. Diversity will fragment what is left and make it worse.
  • Councils can do it better than they do now. Councils should look at what we do and do it better. Get rid of not invented here. Get best value.
  • Legal. The law says that local councils should be responsible for delivering public library services, even if they don’t actually deliver them.
  • If the advocacy case was made better we’d get more money and then not need to worry about other models. We need to prove that libraries make economic sense. We also need to point out the very large majority of people who don’t have access to information e.g. academic papers. Librarians need to shout what a good service they provide – in getting people employed, in literacy, in many things – and then they’ll get more money.  Don’t argue public among yourselves but do the bickering behind closed doors: present a unified front to the decision makers. But on the other hand, Some councils actively prevent “good news” stories because they want to cut library services rather than something else.  Library staff are not allowed to talk about their services with councillors and so cannot advocate to them. The media are also simply not interested in the good that libraries do: they want to report just the cuts. [I have direct experience of this: national media contact me almost every week … and they all want bad news – Ed.]
  • We can save the money in other ways. Why are there so many public library authorities? If the police can manage with so few, how come we need 151?  Let’s get rid of corporate recharges as well.
  • European librarians are amazed at what is going on in the UK.  They’re opening new libraries to serve those affected by recession. But on the other hand, UK libraries are probably just experiencing cuts first.  We’re the canary.  European libraries are likely to get cut soon.
  • Money for library services without councils is pie in the sky. We want public money but don’t want democratic say? That’s not going to happen.
  • We need national public library standards.  A national framework should be the minimum but we don’t have it. But on the other hand, Localism is the prevailing political mood so we’re not going to get them either.

Against the motion

  • May be best for councils to commission services but not to deliver them.
  • Corporate bureaucracy limits libraries.  Due to the corporate priorities and rules within councils, libraries can come off worst.  Library services may want to do something with computers but corporate IT says no.  It may take a month to get a press release agreed by which time the event has gone.   Trusts and other non-council models at least allow librarians to get back some semblance of control.
  • We no longer have the money to provide the service that the public deserves.  With the lack of money, certainties have gone so imaginative solutions needed. Charities. Commercial. Volunteers.
  • While most would agree that, ideally, councils should deliver services, all of the money is likely to be spent on child and social care by 2020.  There’ s no sign that any major political party will end the continuing cuts to public services. While advocacy is great, there’s no sign that it’s actually working.  While we have to live in this dark austerity world, we’d better find the best way to keep services functional.
  • Ironically, because we don’t work in silos and do so well in several fields, we’re being punished for that by councils who only see things in a silo way.
  • Chiefs of library services are sometimes not librarians and are often so bound by corporate rules and objectives that they cannot do anything.
  • Because of council budget targets, library services are locked into a cycle of looking for where the next cut will be.  This stifles initiative and leaves to only one possible conclusion.
  • Councils see library services as a stick to beat central government with.  Close a library and blame it on the coalition.
  • We’re not talking about money without accountability.  No library service can make enough money by its own: they all rely on council funding.  That gives the council enormous power even at one remove and even if they don’t representatives on the board.

Looking at all of this now, I ‘d say that a lot of these arguments were negative ones.  That is, you can’t do the other side because that’s worse. The most convinced advocate was the councillor who loved councils and seemed to blame library leaders for their ills while going all out to say how great public libraries were.  The others had, to a a greater or lesser extent, more nuanced, perhaps even jaded views.

There was no vote at the end of the session so we don’t know what the actual view of the audience was.  If I had to guess, based on the questions and comments from the audience, I would have it as evenly split between the two sides. But I don’t really know.

Anyway, it was an interesting ninety minutes.  I’ll leave you with a copy of my speech.  I must say I would have been shocked if I had been told four years ago that I would be arguing or thinking as I do now.  But that’s what the times have done.

“I’m not representing any organisation, just myself. Why I’m here is that I’ve been reporting in what has been happening for my blog for the last four years and in that time I’ve talked to a lot of people and, also, been a front line public librarian too. So this is what I believe. Consciously or deep down you may believe it too.

I used to live in a world of black and white, of certainty and, yes, of complacency. Councils supplied library services and that was good. Other people delivering library services was not good and an assault upon the natural order of life. Those were the happy days of stagnant budgets or 1% cuts. There was even … Look around … Investment.  I like that word and I don’t get to say it much nowadays so I’m going to say again.  Investment.

Those days have gone. I’ve been reading and reporting on public libraries since 2010. Believe me, those happy days have gone. We live in a world of greys now, where we have to work out which shade of grey (and I don’t mean the book) is the best for the customer and for ourselves.

Why? Since the most recent peak of spending on public libraries in 2009/10, the reduction has been, if inflation is taken into account, over a third. A third! That’s insane. That’s ridiculous. And that is what has destroyed my certainty of what is black and white.

In such a world, continuing as before is often not the best thing to do. Nor is it even possible. You need to be honest with what your service can deliver and what sort of organisation would be best for it. If you’re in a go getting council service that values the importance of public libraries and sees that it can help deliver what it needs to deliver cheaper then you’re fine. If your council is willing, honestly, to change quickly and is not tied up in bureaucracy then you’re fine. If you think you can change your council into being better .. tall order! … Then fine.

How do you know if you work for a council like that or not? Here’s a quick test for you. Do you still use Blu-Tack? Here’s a more difficult test, are you allowed …. whisper it …. Post It Notes?

If on the other hand your council does not see libraries as important, or sees them in terms of a cost rather than a value. If your council is, behind its glossy front, afraid of innovation and terrified of failure. If it still thinks in terms of black and white. Then, in this climate, your library service may best think of getting out. Escape to another model where you have more power and more control.

Now, I’m pretty sure that some models are better than others. I’m not impressed, for example, with for profit companies taking over libraries. There’s nothing they can do better that justifies five or ten percent of the budget being lost to profits to their shareholders.  But a non profit trust or a co operative or … X … may be better. Perhaps some of your library service should stay in and some parts of it like income generation should get out. Northamptonshire and Manchester Central do that. There’s great stuff happening In some e.g. Suffolk. But there is also bad stuff happening in others, like Wigan where they tried being a trust and are now going back to being run by the council. But ask yourself, with so many job losses and moves to volunteers. What’s the alternative to looking at the alternative? Do you want to change yourself or be changed?

Be realistic. In this world, if you’re a professional public librarian and things go on as before. well, then the odds are you’re going to be taking voluntary redundancy or if you’re lucky retirement in the next five years. Labour or Conservative. That’s a big price for keeping to black and white. Try something new. Be something new. Work out what – shock – is best for your customer and not for you or for your organisation. In the long run, you may find it’s best for you too.

I know some brilliant library staff and I know some terrible library staff. There are people who just turn up for work and then go home. Are you in an organisation where you can do nothing about that? Then consider changing that organisation. Because it’s them or you.

Make no mistake. Part of me hates this. I preferred the days of investment and of certainty. But that has been stripped from us. Consider other ways of working. Look into what you honestly think is the future of your service if it stays as it is. Because if your current track does not give you hope then find another track. Because there may be light at the end of it.

Thank you for reading.  You are welcome to email your views (ianlibrarian@live.co.uk) or comment below.