On the face of it the "Big Society", localism and community ownership of public libraries seem like good opportunities for sustaining and developing library services in a time of severe economic restraint.
There is much talk of how these agendas can "empower local communities", and national and local politicians see public libraries as the perfect test bed for trying out these new ideas. The Open Public Services white paper states that giving power to the people will tackle "unfairness and inefficiencies" in the public sector. The Localism bill will give local communities the "right to challenge" to run services themselves. It is claimed that this will enable more choice, decentralisation, diversity, fairness and accountability. But will it?
Choice will be increased by opening up public libraries to the commercial, voluntary and community sectors. But what experience, skills and knowledge do these sectors have in managing public libraries? Will paid professional staff be replaced with untrained volunteers? Will the financial bottom line become more important than meeting the needs of the community?
With decentralisation, the idea is that power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level. But what will this power be? Given that the background to this agenda is deep spending cuts, it is unlikely that significant resources will be shifted to local communities. They are more likely to be given assets which the council can no longer afford to run.
Diversity means public services should be open to a range of providers. But who will really hold the power? In nice, affluent, middle-class areas is it possible that residents groups will have the skills and capacity to take over library services. But how can disadvantaged communities run their own services?
Fairness is about fair access to public services. But will the current gap between those who use libraries and those who don’t just get even wider? For example, half of people in managerial and professional occupations are library users, compared to just one third of those who are in routine occupations.
Accountability means public services should be accountable to users and taxpayers. At the moment residents have a stake in their library service through council tax and local elections. Will stakeholders be replaced by shareholders when the private sector moves in?
If the "Big Society" was about shifting real power to local communities, I would be all for it. But localism and community ownership are a smokescreen for massive spending cuts and the transfer of assets to the unelected and unaccountable private and voluntary sectors. This has been made possible by a lack of resources, low expectations from citizens, a lack of passion from public sector workers and the absence of ambition from successive governments.
Public libraries have changed very little in 150 years due to the vested interests of their staff, users and politicians. They are now facing the ultimate change—extinction.