Ahead of a consultation into the progress of the Libraries Taskforce, campaigners have praised the "hard work" done by the body but have criticised the exclusion of campaigners and frontline staff from its steering group. Campaigners have also argued that the body is "hamstrung" by having to report to the department of digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS).
A year since the release of the Library Taskforce’s Ambition document for public libraries, the body is seeking responses on how it has performed over the past year and on improvements that can be made to the document.
Ian Anstice, editor of Public Libraries News, said that the Taskforce is a “major presence” in the public library sector, providing useful training and an “awful lot” of current awareness blog posts, as well as highlighting the positive activity going on in the sector.
“If you're wanting to see the positive side of what is going on public libraries, and despite after such deep cuts and government refusal to intervene, there's still a lot of good going on, then it's website and staff are where to go”, said Anstice. "It is also trying to push for useful things like a national website and more comprehensive reporting on library services and performance, which have been needed for ages.”
However, Anstice added that the Taskforce is "hamstrung by its very nature". He said: "It cannot be anything but positive as its paymasters are the government and anything else would quickly result in its winding up. The Taskforce, and the Ambition document, have no real power and can only influence. That's not all bad. The sector has needed a development agency for years and the Taskforce is doing what it can in that field. However, the minister is using it as a shield in parliament to show that the government is doing something, as shown in his recent hiding behind it when asked why his department does not collect figures on library closures.”
Anstice said that the Taskforce needs to "make its beneficial influence outweigh the negative effect of the minister using it to help avoid vital intervention, simply going on ignoring the dire impacts of austerity on this important national service".
Laura Swaffield, chair of the Library Campaign, said: “Ten out of ten for effort, but it remains a massive mistake that the Taskforce has decided – on repeated occasions - to exclude from its steering group any organisation that represents library users or frontline staff, such as The Library Campaign, Unison, Speak Up For Libraries, Voices for the Library. This makes it remote, fuels feelings of distrust, and makes us unable to contribute ideas from the real world - or indeed to help them get the message across when they do something good.”
Swaffield added that she would like to see the provision of proper publicity and campaigning tools about libraries.
Citing the recently released data set which was slammed by campaigners as “basic”, Swaffield said: “The latest report on volunteer libraries is something of a last straw. It compiled loads of facts, but didn’t even ask how they perform as libraries. We’ve been calling for proper research for years, and we’re disappointed.”
Swaffield added: “The Taskforce is too accepting of the government’s uselessness, too accepting of cuts, too happy to let the government dump total responsibility on to local councils, too keen to advocate drastic changes that compromise libraries’ civic role in order to scrabble for funding. It’s not a voice for libraries - or librarians. Any time I research just what the Taskforce is doing I am quite impressed with the sheer quantity, despite all the above... but has it really lived up to the grand (and urgent) ambitions at its foundation?
Former Waterstones boss and library campaigner Tim Coates said: “The Taskforce has completely failed to tackle the very serious problems with which it was faced and for which it was created, which were to remedy the causes of the decline in use of public libraries. That fall in numbers of people using the service has allowed local councils to reduce funding. We are watching an appalling lowering of the quality and as a consequence we are seeing the dismantling of the network accelerate.
"The Taskforce has also made the terrible mistake of seeing its role as answering to ‘the library sector’ and to ‘local government’ rather than to local people. It is that kind of aloof governance which we have all learned to abhor."
A DCMS spokesperson said: "The Libraries Taskforce was established as part of the government's commitment to help libraries prosper and to meet the needs of communities across England. It promotes good practice and innovation with the aim of improving services for local people and ensuring libraries remain sustainable.
"The Taskforce works with and reports to the government but also collaborates with numerous bodies across sectors that include literacy, health and wellbeing, business support and digital inclusion to add value to services in public libraries."
The Taskforce is inviting feedback on its progress via this survey which closes on 22nd November.