Yesterday I went to the annual Edward Boyle Memorial Lecture at the University of Leeds. Its theme was ’21st Century Enlightenment’, the new strapline of the RSA, collaborators with the university in the lecture.
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) (who previously was Chief Advisor on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister), spoke about modern concepts of citizenship and how engaged, resourceful and creative members of a community can inspire a better future based on freedom, fairness and progress. He discussed some of the practical implications of this, including how we can create a society that takes responsibility for itself without legislating for what is essentially ‘doing good unto others’.
Matthew happened to mention what he thought was a great idea – giving libraries over to communities to run, in a kind of “there you go, look after it, you wanted power, it’s yours” way. He seemed to suggest that this was what the government had decided to do completely, which was a little disturbing given that there’s been very little news from the Future Libraries Programme, other than several of the authorities involved (Bolton, Oldham, Oxfordshire, Cornwall, Lewisham and Croydon) reducing library services by up to 50% (and I’m not just talking about branch closures, I’m talking about the overall spending on libraries). I asked him after the lecture how he thought the government could reconcile the fact that local authorities have a statutory duty to provide efficient and comprehensive library services with the possibility that, as he mentioned, some communities do not have adequate levels of citizen engagement to be able to rally round and take over their public services. He said he hadn’t thought much about it. It really needs thinking about.
These are some of the problems with handing over libraries to volunteers:
- Many communities aren’t…’communities’ in the way that is needed to effectively help everyone in them
- Many individuals don’t have the resources (time, money, energy, drive, desire) to engage in civic participation (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)
- Many people don’t understand or appreciate the value of increased civic participation and civil society
- Many people don’t have the expertise needed to run libraries
- The councils that have already handed over libraries to communities are finding that it’s an unsustainable model
- Many councils, members of the public, and unfortunately some library campaigners, don’t understand the core values and mission of public libraries. This is taken from (the now Chief Executive of CILIP) Annie Mauger’s review of Doncaster’s libraries:
A good library service will deliver against key policy objectives and provide:
- A positive future for children and young people
- A fulﬁlling life for older people
- Strong, safe and sustainable communities
- Promotion of local identity and community pride
- Learning, skills, and workforce development
- Health improvements and wellbeing
- Equality, community cohesion and social justice
- Economic regeneration
If the government really wants to increase civic participation and strengthen civil society, and really wants to empower people, it should not and cannot just hand over the reigns. Adequate support is necessary even in the strongest of communities populated with the most capable individuals. The Sustainable Communities Act 2007 states that any proposals put forward by local authorities must have regard to a number of issues, including “Increase in social inclusion, including an increase in involvement in local democracy”. I’m concerned that the impact of handing over responsibility for libraries over to communities will be quite the opposite – social inclusion and local (and national) democracy stands to suffer if libraries are not run by qualified, trained professionals who are able to assess community needs and provide a suitable service. This is already a problem in some authorities and has been for a long time; Doncaster Library and Information Service is not managed by library and information professionals, which has resulted in its failure to be able “to respond to customer need“.
I’m very interested in democratic engagement, particularly public libraries’ role in delivering and supporting it. It’s a very important part of what many public libraries worldwide do, and the rest should do, and it was my MA Dissertation topic. Now, more than ever, people need:
- To be able to access resources to engage with democracy. This means they need to be able to access information and get support to do that if they need it. That’s only available through public libraries from public librarians.
- Somewhere to gather as communities and discuss what’s going on in their area, what they can do to support civil society etc. – public libraries are the only place left to do that in many areas, and have a strong reputation as safe, neutral and shared environments.
- Access to information that will help them look after themselves – this includes information about health; employment; legal rights and obligations; and education. Libraries are often the only place that people can access this information.
- To be able to access government information online. The government recently announced plans to put all its services online - 9 million people have never used the internet. Most UK Online Centres are libraries. Doesn’t take a genius…
National government taking responsibility for public library provision, supporting public libraries with professional, trained staff, to support people to support communities. Public libraries can’t support people to support communities if they’re run by people who need support and there is no support from public libraries because they’re running them and…oh you know what I mean.