The death of the library

Yesterday the Arts Council England (ACE) released their report into community libraries and their role in public library service provision (I am not wholly satisfied with the term “community libraries” for a whole host of reasons, I would certainly like to hear of more suitable alternatives).  Community Libraries; Learning from experience: summary briefing for local authorities is manna from heaven for the government, effectively validating the view that public libraries can be central to the government’s Big Society experiment (the experiment that penalises tax payers by making them run a service that they are paying for their local authority to run – a malevolent DIY if you will).  Indeed, Eric Pickles embraced the report wholeheartedly:

“This report shows that localism is alive and well with more people and local groups playing a bigger part than ever before in providing local services whilst also saving taxpayers money. Libraries can be at the very heart of any neighbourhood and this research shows the kind of contribution active communities can make.

“Councils need to be making it as easy as possible for people to take over buildings and services that are valued by the local community, which is why this government’s Localism Act introduced its new community rights.”

So far, so depressing.

Now, I have had a particular interest in this report and the message it sends both to national government and local authorities. I choose, as part of my Masters, to study community libraries and their impact on the digital divide.  I chose this topic as I was particularly interested in some of the areas raised by this divide (particularly in terms of social impact) and I had followed closely the rise of community libraries across the country and decided this would be an interesting and valuable area to research. At the time of choosing to focus on this particular area, there was no existing literature on this specific area.  Being a relatively recent phenomenon, there had obviously been little opportunity to explore its impact.  Whilst a Masters dissertation doesn’t allow much scope for solid, in depth research, it at least provided an opportunity for me to dip me toe in the water and conduct some academic research in an area that had mainly been left to commentary in the media.

I won’t try to condense a 15,000 word piece of research into one blog post (you can read it here – pdf), but when I consider what I had learnt in the course of conducting this research and compare to both the report and Eric Pickles’ comments, I am very worried about the state of the service and the future it has in store.

In conducting my research, I decided to focus in particular on two very different communities. One that was relatively affluent and one that was in a deprived inner city location.  In many ways, I was unsurprised by what I found.  There was a substantial disparity between the levels of service offered by the two libraries.  In the case of the inner city library, it was clear that the people running it had been put in an impossible situation and were providing the service simply because there was no will in the local authority to continue providing it for them.  As they admitted, there were very good reasons why a library was needed in that particularly neighbourhood and they felt that, with the council intending to close it, they had no choice but to try to preserve it for the local community (I wonder if this is the “localism” that Pickles is referring to).

“…localism is alive and well with more people and local groups playing a bigger part than ever before…”

You can read more about the circumstances around this particular library in my dissertation (pages 28-38), I won’t go over it all here as I could write a thousand words again just on the specifics.  When collecting the data (and I should point out that the aforementioned section in the dissertation only covers a small portion of what was collected), I was hit hard by what I was being told.  I’ll be candid with you: after conducting the interview I cried.  I cried because the situation these people were put in was so desperate, trying what they could to ensure that a community desperate for a library service still had something vaguely resembling that which they so nearly lost.  These people understood clearly the value of the library for the local community and they would do anything to ensure that there was something, anything, even vaguely approaching a library service.

As is often the case, these people were not eager to take over the library from their local authority, keen to take ownership and improve the delivery of the service.  They dearly wanted their local authority to run the service for them because it was only through such support that the service could really meet the needs of those in the locality and in areas of deprivation such as this, a well stocked, efficient library service plays a vital role in helping to life people out of poverty and reach their potential.

In terms of the other community library, of course things were not so desperate.  It provided a service that appeared to meet the needs of the local community and offered some support for those who needed it.  But even in this case, those behind the library conceded that a council run library would be a better option. Again, as with the other library I studied, the library was taken over after a concerted attempt to prevent the authority closing a number of libraries across the locality.  This was not a community eager to take the library off the local authority’s hands in order to provide a better, more effective library service.

Given the difference between these two libraries, I am deeply troubled about what the future will bring.  Not only is there a risk of a two tier library service (ie professionally run and ‘voluntarily run’ libraries) but there is a very serious risk of a three tier library service.  There is no doubt in my mind that we will see virtually all rural and small village libraries either close or forced onto local people to run.  I see that as being a very real prospect that means hundreds more libraries will be closed or de-professionalised within the next year or two.  Two hundred closed last year, I rather suspect that we may see double that figure either closed or forced onto local communities over the course of this year.  Of course, this sounds like another wild scare-mongering prediction designed to provoke action.  If I intended that I would have picked a much higher number than four hundred (which I suspect will probably be a conservative estimate).

Whilst all of these smaller libraries will be closed or de-professionalised, main town and city centre libraries will remain the preserve of the local authority who will also, no doubt, use it as part of a shared service (perhaps with archives in some areas, and unrelated council services in others).  Of course, it is questionable how long even these will remain in operated by the local authority, but I certainly see this as the reality for the short to mid-term.

And this is where the problem starts.  We will have professionally run libraries in towns and city centres and volunteer libraries in small villages and rural areas.  There will, quite clearly, be a substantial difference in the quality of the service between the two variations.  As a result of this, there will be a clear and substantial divide developing.  Those living in, or able to commute to, city and town centres will have access to a properly funded (in theory) and professionally delivered library service.  Those who live in rural areas and are unable to commute will have access to a library service provided by the local community with little support from the authority and little or no professional support.  It is not hard to see that a disparity in access to information will emerge.

But it’s not just between the community libraries and the professionally run libraries that a divide will emerge.  Within the community libraries themselves there will be a division.  This division will manifest itself in the difference between a community library in an affluent area, with a literate, comfortable and enthusiastic community willing to provide the support required and one residing in a deprived community without the resources to provide the level of service required.  Of course, local authorities and the national government will argue that in areas of deprivation this situation will not be allowed to develop.  But we have already seen, as noted above, that such a situation has already taken hold in deprived areas.  What makes anyone believe that, in the light of this report, authorities will be dissuaded from threatening communities in deprived areas with closure of their local library unless they run it themselves? I have seen nothing in my experience to suggest that they would be.

But what about the title for this blog post?  Libraries will still exist, so why the melodramatic question? Well, because I believe that the report and the reception it has received does effectively sound the death knell for libraries in many communities.  They will not have librariesanymore, they will have book lending services. For these communities, the library will become virtually extinct.  It’s not something I find easy to write, but I fear that is what the future will bring.  And where a library service will exist, communities will be forced to accept that there will not be a universal standard of library service. Instead they will be forced to accept a three-tier service.  With a professionally run service for those in large towns and cities, and a volunteer run service in rural areas and small towns.

And what of the profession?  I fear for that too.  What the government and ACE are effectively saying is that volunteers can do the job of a professionally trained librarian without having an adverse affect on the delivery of the service.  That we know this is not the case is irrelevant.  It is what the policy-makers believe and we do not have their ear.  What troubles me even more is that there has not been a strong enough response from the profession as a whole. I find it even more troubling that some fellow professionals have shrugged their shoulders and viewed it as “not their problem”.  I would argue it is very much everyone’s problem, not least because of the theoretical foundations of the profession.  I would argue that it is everyone’s problem because, like it or not, this failure to understand the value and need for a professionally run library service will not be restricted to public libraries.  This destructive, ignorant ideology will spread, of that I have no doubt.

Is the library really dead? No, but in the form in which we currently recognise the public library service, it is clearly heading for extinction.