Sunday, 15 June 2014

Post Library Campaign AGM thoughts

It all felt a bit fractious and there was some differing views about volunteer libraries. I think the triumph of the day was me working out how to switch on the air conditioning. One of the contentious views was should we help library users who in the face of closure are trying to save their library by volunteering.

Alan Templeton was of the view that we have to support them and help advise them on how to run a volunteer library otherwise we're responsible for the library failing/closing. Given the example of Brent campaigners trying to get their foot back in the door of their closed library to see if they can reverse the decision of Brent council by showing there is a need for a library, then on the surface it the point is valid and straightforward. If we're about saving libraries we should support volunteer run libraries. I've paraphrased but I think this was the gist of his point. I disagree, for a few reasons.

There are so many different configurations of volunteer library out there, nobody really knows what works and what doesn't. It seems from the example in Bucks, if you have a library in a affluent area with lots of wealth retired professionals then the volunteer library has a chance, but if you're in a deprived borough then its less likely it will succeed. How can I or the library campaign or anyone else claim to know what it best to advise the poor souls trying to save their library? Locality is getting large amounts of taxpayer money and has set up some resources to help, as is Little Chalfont in Bucks. If either of these aren't providing enough support, they users should be complaining to their local authority, DCLG and DCMS, its their ideological solution not mine. I know Jim from Little Chalfont thinks volunteer libraries isn't a great idea but he chooses to help others put in this difficult decision and while I disagree with his choice I won't criticize him for it. Its a horrible choice to have to make and we're all entitled to do what we thinks best.

The other point is, I shouldn't be made to feel guilty or feel responsible if I choose rather than to help I devote my limited free time to campaign against the actual concept of volunteer libraries which nearly all library users/campaigners (but not all in the profession!) are against. The blame lies with your local councillor, cabinet holder for libraries, the council officers and the national government for failing us and particularly Vaizey. Despite still being one of the richest countries in the world they tell us that library managers, the lowest paid, in the smaller branch and rural libraries are a luxury that cannot be afforded, but we can still afford millions (2 million in Oxfordshire in fact) on self service machines, giant vanity PFI libraries in the big cities with websites alone that cost millions.

My final point and I said something along these lines in the meeting and its a harsh reality. If volunteer libraries are seen as succeeding (even if they aren't) then this will be the de facto choice for councils looking to make more easy cuts. We've seen what a meal they've made of the Bucks example, they're quiet about the failures, Walcot in Swindon I would put forward as a example of this, I'm sure there are many others.

The apparent short term success puts at risk more libraries as they spread like a cancer across the library network. More library managers and librarians will lose their jobs and eventually we'll have a library network that is a complete postcode lottery of provision, some failing, a small number managing to stay open, some libraries losing their neutrality and being taken over by groups with agendas to promote. In the middle you will likely have a old central library desperately in need of a refurbishment or replacement or a central PFI library the council can barely afford the monthly payments on.

I wish it wasn't so, those blackmailed into saving their library by feckless councils short sighted cuts I'm not attacking. Given the option of volunteering or my local library closing I'm sure I would probably do the same thing. I hate the position they've been put in and I wish them luck but its not my responsibility, we all know who is responsible and its the councils, Vaizey and the politicians and officers and some in the profession promoting this agenda.

My biggest concern is Labour aren't going to be any different in power if they win or form the coalition next year. Despite their warm words in opposition I suspect they'll not intervene to enforce the act or get the councils to work together to save costs rather than cull the library managers. Most councils out there are Labour and once they've got power again they'll be no different to the tories. We'll have co-operatives as the savour of libraries rather than the big society.

Again, my viewpoint isn't attacking volunteers, I'm dead against volunteer libraries and will use my time to fight that failed idea rather than support it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with what you say - successful volunteer libraries are a hostage to fortune and the unsuccessful ones vanish without trace. There is an added issue which I see in our authority. Our few professional library staff are being expected to train large numbers of volunteers to cover relatively small numbers of opening hours in "community" libraries and this is an ongoing burden - volunteers vanish for all kinds of reasons and then more have to be supported. There is also an issue with the availability of volunteers - usually the "young" retirees - with retirement ages rising there will be fewer and fewer to go round.