26.11.13 | Desmond Clarke
The level of cuts facing the public library service is likely to increase beyond April 2014.
This was the conclusion of a series of meetings between library campaigners, politicians and chief librarians.
While the need for more effective advocacy and positive messages about the value of libraries was highlighted, it was concluded that the lack of an effective body to provide strategic leadership remains a major impediment to developing a modern and efficient library service available to all who need it
Whilst there is some good work going on—notably the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge; the Universal Offers to be rolled out by the Society of Chief Librarians; e-book lending trials next year and DEFRA's research into the impact of local libraries on rural communities—much of this is under-resourced and progress is painfully slow. More worryingly, this work lacks co-ordination and fails to address the immediate problems facing the service in many authorities. These initiatives also do nothing to help the hundreds of communities facing either the closure of their local library or its being handed over to volunteers.
Lack of guidance
It can only be described as bizarre that volunteer groups, compelled to take over their local library, are obliged to rely on other volunteers for guidance. Those running Little Chalfont library, who have been provided with some funding by the Cabinet Office, are overwhelmed with requests for help from these beleaguered groups.
To add to the confusion, Government is actively encouraging the public to run local libraries, without DCMS or ACE having bothered to assess potential legal and regulatory issues properly or research sustainable models that might ensure success in rural or deprived areas.
Indeed the ACE, charged with "developing and Improving" public libraries seems to be more concerned with trying to 'shoe horn' libraries into its cultural agenda than in tackling any of the the immediate issues faced by the service. This lack of official guidance means that, inevitably, ill-informed or contradictory advice is given to residents by their councils.
The future for our public libraries, other than central libraries is, feels bleak. We should not be surprised that a planned Guardian discussion is headed: "The future of Libraries—Keeping the service alive".
The lack of any strategy for the public library service in England contrasts with that found in other countries such as New Zealand and Ireland. Ireland has established a Library Development Committee which is currently undertaking a public consultation on issues such as universal membership, workforce development, and a single library management system "to maximise accessibility, cost-efficiency, reach and impact".
England, by contrast, has to rely upon a policy of "distributed leadership", no vision for a modern library service and no hint of any stategic plan. In fact, in England, we have replaced the need for leadership with localism, ignoring the opportunities to build a comprehensive, efficient and improving service and tackle real problems such as falling literacy and the digital divide.
We need a national Library Development Committee to provide leadership, to build a shared vision, to address critical national issues.
It is about time that ACE, the professional bodies and anyone else concerned with retaining a viable library service told Mr Vaizey and his officials to urgently put in place people capable of providing imaginative leadership—before his ministerial legacy becomes the demise of libraries.
Desmond Clarke is a library campaigner.