Libraries – it’s a “question of priorities”

(Image c/o Freaktography on Flickr.)

At least according to Martyn Allison who, according to his Twitter bio is a “former national advisor for culture and sport at the IDEA now running my own company Management Improvement Services”. Which probably should tell you all you need to know, particularly how we have managed to find ourselves in the state we are in given these are the kinds of folk advising the Local Government Association. If these are the kind of people influencing policy then, well…

Mr Allison was referring to a tweet last week regarding volunteers running libraries:

When challenged on this, he responded:

Now, there is nothing unusual here. It’s a familiar line of argument by those engaged in the dismantling of our public library service. They don’t want to have to do it, but they have no choice. They are merely weighing up the services that are more vital for the community. Is it roads? Care for the elderly? Helping people find housing? Protecting childcare? It’s an argument that plays on certain emotional responses and ultimately disables any attack (similar to the politician’s trick of making statements you couldn’t possibly disagree with). After all, who could argue against care for the elderly? For protecting our children? WHAT KIND OF SICK INDIVIDUAL ARE YOU IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE ELDERLY OR OUR CHILDREN!?!? And so on, and so on…

Of course, this argument is flawed (as if we, or they, didn’t already know this). Let’s consider, for example, that there are around 7 million people who have never used the internet (more who do not have an internet connection at home). Then let’s consider that a whole host of services are increasingly being pushed online. Now let’s revisit the groups of people who folk like Allison claim to be helping by protecting services that directly affect them.

The elderly need care – Yes, they do. Council websites (certain my local council at least) provide access to information about a care home, advising you on the processes and where you can go for help. They also provide advice if you are housebound or need support to remain in your own home. Now, you can obtain this information by other means, but it is obviously far more convenient if you can do this online, putting some at a massive advantage. And let’s not forget, if there are not trained staff (and properly remunerated) we are expecting volunteers to understand the information that is available and be able to guide people to it.

Aside from general care, there is also a need to ensure they are isolated from their local community. The provision of housebound library services for those that need it, and a safe space for others is vital.

Take away libraries delivered by trained staff and you make it harder for the elderly to get the information they need and access the care services you claim to be protecting. Cutting libraries over care services does not protect the elderly, it just creates new problems for them to have to deal with, placing barriers that inhibit their ability to get the care they require.

Roads need repairing – This is an easy one. Roads do need repairing. Kent County Council offer a website that enables individuals to report potholes which can then be repaired within 28 days. Again, those who are not online and don’t have access to a public library can forget about submitting a request to repair the roads (other councils offer this service too). So yes, it ensures there is a pot of money to repair roads, but it also makes it harder for many to report the need for repairs.

Children need protecting – Guess what? Internet again. Council websites provide a wealth of information (again, see Kent County Council) for both children who are victims of abuse or adults worried that children are the victims of abuse. Not only that, but libraries provide a safe space for children after school, to do homework, or just to read (and that’s aside from the obvious benefits in terms of literacy). Public libraries provide a space that offers protection for children. They provide a safe space for children to go when they need to do homework and need to escape abusive relationships at home or when they need to escape bullying and abusive peers. They provide a safe space to learn about personal issues that they would not be able to discuss with adults or their peers. In short, libraries are vital spaces to provide the protection that children need. They are not as obvious as some spaces, but take away a library supported by trained and paid staff who understand their obligations with respect to child protection, and you take away a vital place of sanctuary for those who are victims of abuse.

People need housing – Again, how much information is available online for those in need of housing? How many websites are there providing guidance and support? How many provide information on homeless housing? How many provide guidance for those concerned about individuals who are homeless? Again, remove a library, or hollow it out, and you are attacking the people who you claim to be defending by cutting libraries before the services that you believe they are most immediately in need of.

Let’s not pretend that by cutting library services rather than cutting other services you are not having a massive impact on the most vulnerable. You are. It’s just that rather than hitting them directly, you are hitting them in areas that they won’t realise they need until it’s too late. You are not protecting them, you are merely delaying the harm you are doing to them. If it comes down to a “question of priorities” then cutting back and closing library services suggests that your priority is not to protect the most vulnerable, but to protect your own interests.

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  • librariesmatter

    As well as the points you make surely the question of scale is important. For example the spend on adult social care is 15 times that on public libraries. Even if all public libraries were closed down (heaven forbid!) and the spending redirected to support vulnerable people or road maintenance it would make minimal difference to those services.

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  • Beth

    I fully agree with all of these points. However the thing that I find most disheartening (and somewhat heartbreaking, to be honest) having been a library assistant in public libraries for several years, is that there are many currently employed as library staff who cannot/will not provide the necessary levels of support to library users who need are not confident IT users and need help with these issues. Whether it’s because the library is understaffed (the busy branch in a deprived area that I work in is often single staffed, at most there are 2 people working-as much as I deeply want to sit down with the confused elderly lady for half an hour and show her exactly how to fill in the online forms, there’s a queue of 5 cross people waiting to have photocopying done/be booked onto computers, that I can’t ignore. And she won’t be able to get on a learning session with the librarian for another 2-4 weeks, because of the way the booking system for that works), or because the library staff have very little confidence in the use of IT themselves (extremely common amongst library assistants who’ve been there for a decade or more-and never been offered any comprehensive IT training whatsoever by their employer, just expected to work it out as they go along, which not everyone has the aptitude for), or indeed because they are so disheartened by being paid minimum wage and given zero respect by their employer for doing what is a very challenging and skilled job when done properly, that they’ve decided to do the bare minimum, and will respond with a ‘not my problem’ answer when library users request anything beyond book issuing and computer booking.
    Professional librarians are already few and far between in public libraries, and the training given to library assistants is, in my experience, patchy and minimal (I was given 2 weeks very basic training and then left alone in a single staffed branch, and that’s not unusual). In this respect, a lot of libraries have already been ‘hollowed out.’ It makes me want to weep…