Relentless cuts are turning library sector into 'war zone'

Relentless cuts are turning library sector into 'war zone'

Relentless cuts to the public library service are turning the sector into a “war zone” and making it difficult to recruit staff, figures across the library and information profession have heard. However professionals in the industry are "fighting" hard to keep it alive.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion at the Palace of Westminster on Monday (27th November) about the future of libraries, Sue Wills, library services manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, described the realities of working in the public library sector. “We’ve seen many ups and downs in the libraries world. We all have to have courage and the heart of a lion, and we have to fight our corner day in day out,” she said.

Wills added: “Sometimes we [focus too much] on the view of the UK [where overall library numbers are down], rather than our localities where some [library services are] thriving because we fight every day to keep the service alive. It feels like a war zone. Library leaders have battle scars on their backs.”

The discussion, which saw figures across the library and information profession come together with authors and politicians, also considered how the negative narrative around libraries might hinder the chances of attracting vibrant and energetic talent to the sector, especially as 45% of the current work force will be reaching retirement within the next 10 to 15 years, according to statistics from CILIP. 

Helen Tremaine of the Barbican Library said: “How can we recruit in the current crisis? [Working in libraries] is not an attractive career option; there’s no job security and the pay is low. Alongside that, the library service is being decimated.”

However, Nick Poole c.e.o. of CILIP, said that while he is “realistic” about the current situation in the library sector, he argued that the sector “cannot wait for things to get better" before it invests in encouraging and developing new talent.

“The negative rhetoric of libraries is all over the place”, he said. “There are horrific cuts, but it’s also an amazing sector - parts of which are struggling and parts of which are flourishing. Jobs are hard to come by in some areas, but in others, like, prison libraries - they’re recruiting.”

Poole added: "We need to find a way to develop, encourage and retain talent. We also need to reflect the society we live in - 96% of staff in the sector are white. We need a more diverse workforce and to do that we need to reduce barriers to entry. We want everyone to be able to see themselves working in libraries, and we want every member of library staff to be empowered to go out and build the library of the future."

Author and co-founder of Fun Palaces Stella Duffy said the lack of diversity in the library sector was "appalling" and suggested the implementation of quotas. "If we want library of the future to be inclusive, and if that means quotas… so be it. It’s just appalling. We need to stop talking about inclusion, we’ve got to do it."

Meanwhile, Maureen Duffy, author and honorary president of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, highlighted that author income has declined 30% in the last 10 years and said there needs to be more co-operation between authors and workers in the library sector.

Duffy said: “I am making a plea for your support of Public Lending Right (PLR) as we [authors] support funding for libraries… in order to preserve cultural diversity throughout world of literacy and language there must be support for local authors to avoid monoculture. We need to work together and not swipe at each other. I grew up in a book-less home, if not for our local library, I would not have ended up publishing 35 books as I have today."

It was recently recommended that the Public Lending Right (PLR) rate be increased to 8.2p per loan in 2018 as a result of the "disheartening" reduction in the estimated number of loans of books registered for PLR.

Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, discussed the recent Shining the Light report from Carnegie UK, which showed that there has been a "significant" drop off in the use of libraries by the poorest members of society.

"My perception is that cuts are damaging the people most vulnerable. The relationship between poverty and literacy [is something we need to focus on]. Are we prepared to campaign for library use with a bias to the poor?"

Following on from CILIP's campaign to lobby the government to halt the decline in school libraries and librarians which is backed by a host of trade figures including Philip Pullman and Malorie Blackman, Sarah Mears, chair of the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians (ASCEL), highlighted the role of libraries and of children and young people. Expert libraries were needed to support children’s reading and development, she argued.

The discussion was attended by trade figures including Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Bookseller's Association, Kathy Settle, chief executive of the Libraries Taskforce, and the shadow libraries minister Kevin Brennan.