Grasping the nettle

The austerity drive in local government should have been used to liberate thinking about more efficient and effective ways of delivering public library services.

The opportunity to share and merge services; to co-locate libraries with other council services; to make optimum use of technology; to reduce layers of management; and to launch a national e-book catalogue and lending service are among the many ideas that should have been seized upon by those in power.

It is not that there have been a shortage of reports and consultancy studies offering ideas. The bookshelves of the DCMS, ACE and the professional bodies are stacked with reports such as Framework for the Future, Blueprint for Excellence, the Library Modernisation Review, the Library Development Initiative and most recently, Envisioning the Library of the Future.

However, what is missing is any real leadership and a proper plan to deliver an improving, comprehensive and efficient public library service available to all who need it—and as prescribed in the 1964 Act.

The result is that many authorities in their search for economies are simply closing or transferring branch libraries to volunteer groups.

Public Libraries News calculates that 614 libraries have closed or are threatened with closure in the first three years of the cuts. Herefordshire, Lincolnshire and Sunderland are the latest authorities to face significant local protest, joining many others from Newcastle,
Doncaster and Bolton to Surrey, Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wight.

While this happens, Arts Council England, as the agency responsible for "improving and developing" the public library service, has so far failed to announce a proper plan or describe the expected outcomes of its work.

Meanwhile, the professional body, CILIP, has allowed itself to become distracted by a bitter internal debate about whether to rebrand itself as ILPUK (Information & Library Professionals UK).

The reality is that library campaigners have been alone apart from the exceptional support provided by many authors and the willingness of the media to highlight their protests. Even those groups that have had little choice but to volunteer to take over their local library have been left to their own devices. The volunteers who run Little Chalfront Library report that they have been approached for help by no less than 130 groups wishing to save their local library.

Next month, campaigners are hoping to meet with the All Party Parliamentary Library Group and will put in front of MPs and peers hard evidence to support their very real concerns about the "crisis" in the sector. They will also question the bizarre policy of "distributed leadership", promoted by the DCMS and ACE, which seems only to provide an excuse for no one to take responsibility.

It is clear that little will happen—other than yet more library closures—until the DCMS puts in place proper leadership which drives innovation and the implementation of best practice, and encourages every authority to deliver the best possible service with the resources available. That requires people with the ideas, the expertise and the determination to deliver.

Above all, it requires a minister who genuinely believes in public libraries and the enormous benefits that they bring. A minister willing to grasp the leadership nettle.

Desmond Clarke is a library campaigner and former director at Faber.