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.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

Banning offensive materials in public libraries

Over the Easter week-end, a petition emerged calling for The Sun newspaper to be removed from Islington Council’s public libraries. The petition states:

“We would like public libraries to replace the Sun newspaper with a publication that does not promote misogynistic images of women or promote and eroticise violent crimes against women. This is not censorship, councils choose which publications they buy based on the needs of the local community, libraries choose not to buy The Daily Star or The Daily Sport which were cited along with The Sun in the Leveson enquiry as “relentlessly objectifying women” and “Portraying them as a sum of sexualised body parts” and we believe they should choose not to buy The Sun for the same reasons.”

It goes on to list the ways in which the availability of the newspaper in the council’s libraries contravenes its own policies with regards to discrimination and in terms of making available sexist materials. At the time of writing it had received 495 signatures and seems to be garnering some support on Twitter.

I have no time for The Sun (or indeed any of the newspapers in the Murdoch stable). It is a cynical, exploitative newspaper that, without a trace of irony, expresses a superficial sense of patriotism whilst simultaneously expressing beliefs that are alien to our history and culture (‘our’ being the people, they certainly represent beliefs that reflect the history and culture of the establishment). And, of course, it promotes views that are xenophobic, misogynistic and discriminatory.  Consequently, I sympathise with the motivations behind the petition, but I find it troublesome on any number of levels.

I do not believe that any lawful material should be banned from public libraries, no matter how abhorrent I may think it is. Because once we let that genie out of that bottle there is no telling where it will end. Removing copies of The Sun because it is misogynistic may result in certain groups seeking the removal of other books or newspapers that promote a viewpoint that an individual or group may find abhorrent (indeed, a quick search online finds that there are those who would seek to remove The Koran from library shelves). Once a concession is made to one group, it would be increasingly difficult to fend off calls from other pressure groups to remove materials. Libraries should be concerned with free access to all information, regardless of its value (which is a subjective concept at any rate), not providing access to materials according to the demands of individual pressure groups. Which leads me to another, wider concern about the impact of such library campaigns.

We’re currently witnessing a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’ – libraries that local communities are being forced to provide in response to threats of closure.  They are often delivered by those without previous experience of running a library and, in many cases, without substantial local authority oversight. One of the many concerns about the spread of these types of library services is how the kind of campaigns mounted against The Sun will be handled. Will those from the local community running such libraries bow to vociferous pressure from within their local community to remove materials that the minority might value? Or will they stand firm and refuse to remove materials from library shelves simply because sections of the community demand it? I’m not convinced that they will resist.

The size of a local authority is both a blessing and a curse. In such circumstances, its size can be an advantage in resisting such efforts. For a small library in a local community, run by the local community facing demands from within the community to remove certain materials, I’m not sure they will be so resilient. “Faceless bureaucrats” have a distinct advantage over volunteers in a “community library” – they are faceless. They can, by and large, brush off any local campaigns. Well known figures within the community who help deliver library services are not so fortunate. As I told The Guardian back in 2012 with respect to libraries removing books from shelves due to external pressures:

“…the issue of censorship and banned books are very strong arguments for a professionally run service. If community libraries are to spread, it is very likely that stories of censorship and withdrawn books will increase.”

Of course, those who believe that The Sun should be removed from public libraries have every right to organise, petition and argue their case. What concerns me is that as libraries run by volunteers becomes the norm, such campaigns will become ever more widespread and a growing problem for the public library service in the UK. It is only a matter of time, as such libraries become more prevalent, that one such campaign will be successful. In the fight against injustice and discrimination, we should be careful what we wish for.