The turn of the year is a good time to review what has been going on, not least because I get a few days off. The following does not pretend to be comprehensive and will doubtless miss out on many important trends – if I included everything, it would be too long and no-one would read it – and of course represents a personal view.

The big news is undoubtedly the re-election of the Conservatives for another five years. Despite a small amount extra being promised to library services before the election – basically a bribe – the deep cuts to services since the party started it’s current run in power in 2010 more than make up for it. Although austerity has calmed down (although never gone away) in the last couple of years, the prospect of Prime Minister Johnson until 2025 and the impending disaster of Brexit, means libraries can only expect a continuation of the bad times. These cuts are the primary factor for a deep reduction in library usages over the past decade – they probably would have declined anyway a bit but the example of other countries suggest the hit would have been nowhere near as bad if budgets had not been cut by 30% without even taking inflation into account.

That’s the major bad news but the good news is the expansion in the number of library services going fines-free in the UK. Eight more services decided to stop punishung users for returning books late in 2019, with a notable concentration in the North West, more than doubling the number in the country. There are few librarians who still see charging everyone regardless of their ability to pay as a progressive step and, as more go fines free, more pressure and more evidence to follow suit. Fingers crossed.

CILIP have upped their game by launching major political campaigns with school libraries and the US-inspired Libraries Deliver. It’s work on ethics has been notably prominent. This is a good thing as ethics have tended to come last in local library services in practical terms. Few cash-strapped services, when push comes to shove, say no to commercial funding even from such dubious concerns as Amazon and Google. This extends to the very highest levels, with a senior delegation of library chiefs and others choosing this year to visit China – an unethical place for all sorts of well-known reasons – to boost links. China, by the way, is also a leader in pollution and, although environmental issues have hit the global headlines like never before in 2019, public library services have conspicuously failed to market themselves to benefit from being one of the greenest services out there. Mind you, being public library services have failed to market themselves in any way whatsover, for the 170th year running, this is not surprising.

ACE have been moving away from menacing libraries with far too many subsidised theatre shows and have instead become increasingly keen to promote, gosh, books and the other services that libraries provide. Recent pronouncements suggest that this trend will improve in the next few years and that is to be welcomed.

Libraries Connected, the revamped Society of Chief Librarians, is starting to make its presence felt. This has not been fast enough for me – I want national promotional campaigns and a prospect of a realistic single digital presence (a national libraries website is not asking much) before 2030, neither of which appear likely – but slow progress is being made and there is reason, like with CILIP and ACE, to hope.

The same cannot be said for CIPFA, which continues to provide lacklustre and late information on the sector at sky-high prices, even though it gets its data for free. The organisation – which has come out clearly against any open data or co-operative approach because, well, it can’t make any money out of it – is in clear need of a good kicking. However, until local or national library services come up with a viable alternative – not a certainty in a sector which often comes across as unified as a bag of screaming cats – then they will continue doing the job terribly and charging through the nose for doing so.

Locally, there’s a few library services doing particularly badly. The most spectacular have been the proposed library cuts in Essex. There as been a very strong grass-roots campaign against the reductions and some quite impressive gaffes by the council handling it. The council appears to have been caught wrong-footed by the strength of feeling and many of the councillors seem out of touch with libraries. It’s recent moderation of cuts is already being closely analysed.

There have been two notable library strikes. One, in Bromley, against GLL is over a number of different things, mainly boiling down to the union being entirely against the library service being run by a non-council service and unhappiness with how GLL is doing things. In Bradford, the reason for the unhappiness is more clear-cut, being simply over huge cuts to the library service while the council hypocritically and simultaneously is bidding to become a capital of culture.

There are many more examples of cuts to library services and bad management but the one that sticks in my mind the most is Derbyshire which has banned telephone renewals despite despite having staff, computers and, well, telephones. This “digital by default” strategy is the exact opposite of putting the customer first and hopefully will not be the start of a trend.

Changes by local authority

National news

“You were always there; a constant. A kind, supportive adult in times when I had few of those, who, if I asked you a question, would do your best to answer with kindness, patience and honesty. And when I was overwhelmed and confused because life seemed harsher than I’d imagined it could be, I would go to you and our brief interaction – one person being gentle to another, sharing a love of books that felt bigger than that small village with its big problems – would keep me going a bit longer.”

Kerry Hudson

International news

  • Australia – First library in Victoria to open 24 hours a day, seven days a week has town buzzing – ABC News. “People were asking for more opening hours, but we found almost 50 per cent of the community work more than 35 hours a week, so just increasing the opening hours wasn’t going to work,” she said. She said staff hours were not being cut and the library would continue to be staffed from Thursday to Tuesday, and closed on Sunday and Wednesday. The move to 24/7 access required a $92,000 upgrade, which has been funded by the State Government, with $20,000 from West Gippsland Libraries, and $3,000 from the Friends of the Foster Library.”
  • Canada – ‘Something special about libraries’: Hopes high for OPL fundraising campaign – CBC. “The Ottawa Public Library hopes to raise $10 to 15 million over the coming years as part of a major fundraising campaign for the new central library — not to pay for the bricks and mortar, but to ensure interesting things take place inside once it’s open.”
  • Ghana – 2020 Is ‘Year Of Learning’ — Ghana Library Authority Declares – Modern Ghana. “The Ghana Library Authority has declared 2020 as the ‘Year of Learning,’ under the theme “70 years of Transforming Minds through Libraries,” in commemoration of its 70 years of existence. Ghana Library Authority is the second oldest incorporated institution by an act of Parliament of Ghana and has the mandate to establish, equip, maintain and manage public libraries in Ghana. “
  • USA – A year after Denver Public Library ended late fees, patrons — and their books — are returning – Denver Post. “Thirty-five percent of patrons with overdue fines who had stopped using Denver Public Library services have re-engaged with the library since the fee cancellation … Denver librarians have seen a 10% increase in lost materials being returned from 2018 to 2019 … The change has not resulted in a free-for-all.”

Changes by local authority

  • Bath and North East Somerset – ‘No questions asked’ book amnesty being held in Bath & North East Somerset – Bath Echo. “The council removed fines for the late return of books in April 2019, but is now inviting anyone who still has books borrowed before that date to return them from 6th January as part of a book amnesty. Books can be returned to the main libraries in Bath, Keynsham and Midsomer Norton or at one of the community-run libraries, and old fines will be deleted. People who think they have lost a very overdue book should talk to library staff who can remove it, and any fines, from their account and people will then be able to use the libraries as normal.”
  • Blackburn With Darwen – Library fines to be scrapped in Blackburn with Darwen – Citizen. Amnesty for outstanding charges too. “Councillors have been told that the projected fines income for 2019-20, based on current usage, is £7,750. This annual rate is said to have dipped by 25 per cent from 2016-17 – and is expected to decrease further in future. Cllr Talbot said: “There is some evidence to say that having outstanding library fines or overdue books is an obstacle which makes people fearful of going into our libraries. ” … “Several other north-west councils, including Blackpool, Halton, Leeds, Oldham and Salford, have already opted to scrap fines. “
  • Blackpool New Year honour for Blackpool couple who have transformed children’s lives – Gazette. “Also in line for an award is Blackpool Council’s head of libraries Mark McCree who has been given a BEM (British Empire Medal) for services to public libraries. He said: “I am overjoyed to receive such an honour. I am passionate about the positive impact libraries and library services have on our communities.”
  • Bridgend – Trust announces changes to mobile library service in Bridgend area – Glamorgan Gem. “The mobile library service across the county borough of Bridgend is to be overhauled so that more vulnerable, isolated and housebound people can benefit from books brought directly to their door. From December 16, the existing mobile and Booklink vehicles will come off the road to prepare the routes. A new Books on Wheels service, with additional stops to people confined to their homes, will be launched from Monday, January 6.”
  • Devon – Fundraising campaign to fix library rocking horse – Radio Exe. “Libraries Unlimited, the charity which runs libraries in Devon, has launched a fundraising campaign to pay for repairs to a rocking horse.  Jubilee Beauty, has been at the library since 1977. But they say she’s now had one ride too many and is lame (broken!) She’ll now have to be fixed by a specialist rocking horse restorer. “
  • Essex – Manningtree Library campaigners to receive town council award – Yellow Advertiser. “The Save Manningtree Library campaign is to receive Manningtree Town Council’s Community Engagement Award. The campaign organised a number of events during 2019, with 500 marching through the town in April and hundreds more joining a ‘love our library’ street party in September. “
    • Call for scrutiny over new library IT system – Epping Forest Guardian. Councillor asks questions over system: ” “What is the platform the library management system is currently running on? Are we looking for something that is off the shelf or are we building it to specification? Who is going to develop it? Are we looking for packages that need to fit together? “
    • The council’s offer to community-run libraries – Essex Council. Lists what limited funding is available to those willing to work for free to run Essex libraries.

“I noticed that your update on PLN about Essex Council quotes a somewhat one-sided Bookseller article (the Bookseller then redressed the balance with a more recent article).  Your quoted article  emphasises ECC’s claim not to be closing libraries and the investment they are putting into a small handful of larger libraries (tho they won’t be libraries anymore) and computer systems. It does not cover their strategy to put the majority of Essex’s 75 libraries into the hands of volunteers by encouraging individual or group takeovers. The volunteers will have to pay for their own buildings, computers etc. They will have one ticket and will use it to go and drive and collect any ordered books from the Essex Libraries catalogue. There will be no professional staff. Essex Council offer is £18000 over three years, then nothing. ”

Liz Miles, library campaigner, via emial.