Steve Davies opening speech to Speak Up For Libraries – full presentation notes

Slide 1 – Title 


  • There are not many good reasons for getting up at 6 on a Saturday morning to catch the early train from Cardiff to London, but speaking up for libraries is one of them
  •  And somebody has to.  
  • Because it seems that the minister with responsibility has disappeared. So much so, that I wondered whether he was still in post or whether he’d been reshuffled.  
  • To my surprise, when I looked through the List of Ministerial responsibilities, I saw that he’s still in the job. Then I found a photo of him on the internet which explains why we haven’t seen much of him lately… 

Slide 2 – invisible man 

  • His political epitaph will be ‘not minded to intervene.’
  • ‘Not minded to intervene’ in a period in which the financial black hole facing councils is widening by £2.1 billion a year and will reach £14.4 billion by 2020. 
  • In the last few years in the library service, we’ve seen: 
  • Thousands of jobs lost with the associated expertise 
  • Hundreds of libraries closed or taken out of public control 
  • Staffing levels down in many of the libraries that remain and redeployment of many staff to additional council duties in the so-called hubs 
  • Cuts in opening hours 
  • Cuts in funding and so depletion of the bookstock7
  • And many of the libraries that remain are in a form of slow motion closure  
  • by the hour,  
  • by the member of staff,  
  • by the book If that’s not a crisis I don’t know what is 

But let’s take a step back from that for a moment. The foundation of the library network is the local branch library… 

Slide 3 – Whitchurch Library 

  • This is my local library. My father first took me to this library when I was a kid and I took my kids to it
  • It’s actually quite a small local branch, but when I was six or seven it felt very big and seemed to have millions of books. I can remember trying to work out how long it would take me to read all the books in there, because then I’d know everything there was to know.
  • That didn’t quite work out 
  • But what I didn’t know then, was that the objective of the legendary library of Alexandria was to assemble the totality of all human knowledge. Even they failed, so my little branch library 1600 years later didn’t have much chance 
  • But in one sense I was right 
  • Because although it’s a small library – especially compared to others like the Library of Congress, or the Hof Bibliotek Vienna or the new library of Birmingham [Slides 4,5,6] – it does have something in common with all of them. Whether large or small, all libraries share one feature and that is that they are ‘gates to the future’ as Neil Gaiman said recently. They are also doors to different worlds in time and space as Dr Who might say tonight. 
  • But the current programme of cuts and closures threatens to padlock these doors for good 

So how is this justified?

Usually by one or both of these arguments: 

  • First, we don’t need libraries any more
  • Second, we can’t afford them

Slide 7 – Does the internet mean the end of libraries? 

  • You’ve all heard the argument – libraries are now outdated. Time’s moved on.
  • After all we’ve had libraries of one form or another virtually since the invention of writing by the Sumerians in 3500BC. Once the Sumerians wrote things down, they needed to catalogue what they’d written. So they probably were the first librarians. They called their cataloguers ‘ordainers of the universe’, which I think is quite snappy and if CILIP ever reopen the discussion on a new name, that would be my suggestion
  • Anyway we’re told that technology makes libraries redundant: everyone can get whatever they want on the internet these days 
  • Except that they can’t 
  • Terry Deary may think we’re all living in some internet-driven global village but he’s in danger of appearing as the global village idiot through his ignorance of the reality
  • In the first place there is still an enormous digital divide – 7m have never used the internet (ONS). That’s not the number without a good high speed connection. This is the number of adults in Britain who have never used the internet
  • Now that number will most likely come down, but in fact, the internet makes libraries more relevant not less
  • I’m a big fan of books, although I use digital as well. Personally I don’t think we’re seeing the end of books. But even if we are, that’s missing the point about libraries, which is about accessing information in whatever format it is held. 
  • We face an information glut today. 
  • A week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the C18th.  
  • This year, the world will generate more information than in the previous 5,000 years 
  • It’s a jungle out there (as they used to say in Hill Street Blues) and we need help to navigate the jungle – librarians are our essential guides 
  • But that’s not all. It’s also not true that we all have unlimited access to all parts of the internet.
  • The emergence of pay walls and the existence of subscription jnls (particularly academic jnls) cuts down access. Libraries are already tackling these issues. An interesting article this week revealed a pilot project whereby public library users will have free access to subscription academic jnls for instance. 
  • The Conservative party has also given us a good example of the fragility of internet access to information. They recently removed from the internet all those embarrassing pre-election speeches with pledges not to reorganise the NHS or cut SureStart or get rid of EMA etc.  Thanks to the data capture by the British Library, the Tories will be unable to erase their own history 
  • Finally, research carried out by Univ Berkeley compared the effectiveness of librarians against search engines and it was librarians who came out on top 
  • Another argument is that everybody buys books, they’re cheap and easily available to everyone
  • Except that’s also not the full picture (ask anyone with kids whether they could keep up with their kids’ reading by buying new books every week) 
  • In any event, many people simply can’t afford to buy books. For example, in Wales if you earn £30K, you’re in the top decile of earners. And that’s probably true of large parts of the UK. That sort of wage wouldn’t be regarded as good wage particularly in London perhaps but elsewhere it is 
  • Finally, buying books does not preclude borrowing books  

And none of these arguments about the internet and cheap books touch on the full range of what libraries offer

Slide 8 – David Cameron’s Mansion Speech 

This is David Cameron’s Marie Antoinette moment or the Bling and I. 

And it’s relevant to this point about whether we can afford libraries in this time of austerity.  

This operates at several levels. At local authority level, we sometimes hear the argument that if libraries stay open, then other services have to close  

But there are other questions that can be asked: 

  • How do some authorities find the money for new central super libraries but say they are unable to support their branch networks?
  • Why do councils continue to spend millions on private sector consultancies? 
  • Why has the public sector as a whole spent £4 billion in the last year on outsourcing contracts with just 4 firms (NAO)?
  • And why do we continue with budgetary systems which operate in silos. Closing libraries incurs significant costs elsewhere in terms of the damage to local communities, literacy and so on. There needs to be a way of capturing and reflecting the realities of the positive social and economic impact of libraries  

But the cuts are very real and ultimately, however ‘efficient’ a local council is, there are limits to what it can do. So we have to look at UK government level. And this is where Cameron’s speech becomes relevant

Ever since the financial crash of 2008, we’ve been told by politicians of all parties – and it’s become the approved and accepted consensus – that the deficit has created an extraordinary situation that requires massive cuts to put right  

We’re all in this together – as you can see from the slide  

But actually in his speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet, Cameron fundamentally changed the debate. He said we need austerity permanently. It’s not a temporary adjustment because of economic necessity; it’s actually a political goal to reduce the size of the public sector permanently 

After spending a lot of time attempting to depoliticise discussion of the crisis, his Mansion House speech effectively conceded that the debate is not economic but political 

Why does this matter?

Because it confirms that however serious the crisis – and it is a serious crisis, brought about by the financial sector – there is always more than one response, more than one potential approach 

And is the government really saying that we cannot afford to run a public library service in the C21st – despite the World Bank categorising the UK as the 6th richest country in the world? 

So what is the answer from the govt? 

They seem to be giving us three options:

Slide 9 – Batman cartoon 

The first option seems to be a general rundown of the system through cuts 

  • Staff cuts which massively reduce overall numbers of staff as well as the % of professional librarians in the workforce (really a process of deskilling)
  • Budget cuts which reduce the quality and range of books and materials available and often involves moving out of a bespoke library into other council offices, and 
  • Cuts in opening hours which reduce access for the public 

Some councils and ministers seem to think that a couple of bookshelves in a box room at the back of a sports centre or some form of self-service machine with a few hundred books to choose from in the local Tesco is an adequate replacement for a branch library. 

But as Michael Rosen said: a library without a librarian is just a room with books 

Slide 10 – Blitz pic 

Now libraries, library staff and library users have been through difficult times before, as this picture of a London library in 1940 illustrates 

But even at the worst point of the Great Depression or World War Two there was a sense of the possibility of a better tomorrow 

The growth and development of the library service may have slowed or even stalled in these periods of national catastrophe but never went backwards 

 That is not so today 

Slide 11 – volunteers 

The second option the govt is encouraging is for volunteers to take over the running of local branches under threat 

In my opinion this is the most dishonest policy of the lot 

It wraps itself up in feelgood phrases about choice, civic involvement and the Big Society while cynically dumping the responsibility for the running of the library in the lap of volunteers desperate to keep open a valued civic amenity 

I have a lot of respect for the volunteers who take on this task – often they are the most enthusiastic supporters of the library in a locality. And many of them are well aware of the Hobson’s choice with which they are presented 

Vaizey says that Volunteer-run libraries are ‘a way of growing the library service not replacing it’, and an ‘additional element of provision’. 

This is a breath-taking piece of cynical politician-speak. In reality, the attraction for ministers and some councils is precisely that it is a replacement form and usually cheaper. And it has all the obvious potential problems relating to sustainability, funding, quality, fragmentation and staffing that could be predicted. 

But can volunteers play a positive supporting role?  

Of course, as I said they are often some of the most committed library users.  

But as many of them have pointed out, this policy is rarely an example of an expansion of the capacity of civil society, still less an imaginative involvement of the community in improving services.  

Usually it is a last ditch attempt to keep open a service under threat and most of those involved would no doubt prefer to retain a council-funded, professionally staffed and trained resource. 

Slide 12 – privatisation 

The third option being pushed by govt is that of privatisation. We’ve seen an example of where that leads this week 

As though working from the script of a Christmas panto villain, Carillion have barely had time to change the nameplate on the library service contracts they’ve bought than they’ve announced redundancies of library staff 

Not only was there no discussion with the service users about whether they wanted a different private provider but there has been not a single word of consultation about what impact redundancies will have on the level or quality of service 

The only imperative for Carillion is the bottom line 

Their timing is impeccable with the criticism of outsourcing of public services by the Public Accounts Committee. This follows closely on the publication of the National Audit Office’s report with its damning list of problems, including: 

  • The lack of genuine competition
  • the overlong and inflexible contracts
  • the hidden costs
  • and Inadequate scrutiny

They might have added:

  • the lack of transparency (FoI)
  • and the patchy performance

The Financial Times recently put it very well, accusing private contractors of hitting the targets but missing the point of public service, which is not too surprising, because 

  • Where you see a library user, they see a revenue stream
  • Where you see a library, they see a profit centre
  • Where you see free and open access to the culture of the written word, they see product and market share

Slide 13 – Knowledge is power 

So where does this all leave us?

  • It’s not an accident that every tyrant, tin pot dictator and autocratic govt has been in favour of book-burning and censorship.
  • Neither is it any accident that every social group struggling for freedom has seen literacy as an essential tool of that struggle.
  • This was as true of the industrial working class in Britain as it was of the slaves of the southern states of America 
  • In both cases, when the masters could not prevent the spread of literacy they tried to control what was read – Voltaire’s satirical pamphlet about the ‘horrible danger of reading’ captures this.  
  • Why? – because reading leads to reflection and reflection leads to action – a dangerous thing in the eyes of tyrants
  • So it really shouldn’t be any surprise that public libraries have always been associated with democracy, liberty, equality and justice
  • They are a unique public space – they are an example of what William Morris called ‘neighbourly common sense
  • They stand against the commodification of knowledge and for universal and equal access on the basis of right rather than wealth
  • They stand against censorship and for the public’s right to know 
  • Most of all they stand for the Citizen not the consumer 

And what of the future? 

  •  Can libraries do things better – of course 
  • Can libraries allocate resources more effectively – almost certainly
  • Can libraries do more to involve local communities – without doubt
  • But none of this points to the wrecking ball of the current programme of cuts and closures 

Every period in our history has its own particular lexicon of words which are associated with it.  

In the future, no doubt people will look back at Britain in the early years of the 21st century with astonishment when they see that the contribution to English vocabulary of one of the world’s richest countries was: 

  • Payday loans
  • The bedroom tax and
  • Food banks

Our children and grandchildren will not forgive us if we allow ‘library closures’ to become part of that dictionary of shame 

Slide 14 – We can save our libraries! 

So what can be done? 

  • By your presence here, you have already begun to change things 
  • The Welsh social theorist, Raymond Williams, spoke of the need to draw on ‘resources of hope’. And that is what today’s conference is 
  • The centre of gravity of the political debate changes one email, one protest, one conference at a time – but change it can and change it will
  • All over the country, library users and supporters are campaigning, as are branches of the library workers’ union UNISON, community groups, branches of the Women’s Institute and residents’ organisations. We need to encourage the closer collaboration of these different groups in different parts of the country and link up with others attempting to change the political weather, the political commonsense 
  • In a very rich country like the UK, what we spend money on is dominated by the politics rather than the economics. Whether we choose to spend billions on Trident or subsidising French and Chinese nuclear power companies, the HS2 rail link, foreign military intervention or on public services like public libraries are essentially political decisions 
  • In those circumstances, all politicians are vulnerable and all policies can be changed 
  • Politicians make political decisions about costs, we need to ensure that they understand there are political costs to their political decisions
  • By defending, extending and expanding the notion of – not just libraries – but PUBLIC libraries in the context of public service, we have already begun to change the terms of the debate, which is the first step to changing the reality  

Thanks for listening


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