The library service is falling into its own dystopian tale. The story fits all the tropes: a bleak landscape of buildings far from their former glories and managed into a state of terminal decline by an authoritarian state whose apparatchiks speak the language of obfuscation. A plucky band of supporters fighting on, one day stumbling upon a once magnificent building in Birmingham City Centre. “Goddamn, you,” one shouts, “you really did it.”
It is too soon to tell if Paul Blantern, head of Northants County Council and chair of the Leadership for Libraries task force set up after the Sieghart Review, can re-write this narrative. In his interview with The Bookseller, his words are carefully measured. Blantern does not want to overstate his case before he has begun: but he can ill afford another review into libraries to do nothing.
Blantern must balance his view that parts of the network are in “crisis”, with the knowledge that there remains great levels of service in libraries up and down the land. He must not undermine professional librarians, but he cannot be unaware that in some cases it is volunteers that are keeping the flame alive. In his conversations with the government, Blantern must also be mindful of the words of libraries minister Ed Vaizey a year ago: “Reports of [the service’s] demise appear with weary predictability, but are entirely unfounded.” I might say that there is none so blind as he who will not see, but it is fair that Blantern does not.
Blantern is making the right noises. He wants to identify achievable aims, and has assembled a task force of formidable merit that crosses political and cultural borders including, crucially, many local authority heads. He has taken his lead from the Sieghart Review which, as deputy editor Benedicte Page wrote at the time, was less interested in hearts and minds, and focused instead on aligning the service with the priorities of central and local government. “We can’t save every building,” Blantern tells us. “What we’re trying to do is build a real library service that is fit for the future.” Many will have heard this before and Blantern must do better than those who preceded him. He will know more after 8th May, but judging by the comments made by the political parties this week the climate will not change much. Labour may give councils longer-term funding settlements and the Lib Dems a further hurdle to vault when closing libraries, but none are planning on introducing new money or ring-fencing spending, despite the obvious societal good that access to reading delivers.
And as for those hearts and minds, I wouldn’t leave them out of this entirely. Anyone who isn’t clear about how this works should take a long, hard look at the image on the magazine's front cover.