Closing Libraries (and other heresies)
It is amazing how quickly a local government working, library supporting, cuts defying, Eric Pickles baiting council officer can turn into an anti-libraries cuts enthusiast with just a few vaguely provocative tweets but that is exactly what happened to me on Tuesday.
Twitter is great for many things; it is helpful for spreading ideas, sharing articles and making pithy comments on the news of the day. It is good for making connections, starting debates and provides for the intellectual stimulation some other forms of social media do not.
However, twitter is not good for developing a full and detailed argument on any particular topic.
And so it proved on Tuesday.
@walkyouhome and @ShirleyBurnham are (and I think it is ok to assume this) library supporters and campaigners and neither were particularly impressed by my suggestion that the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act might be a pretty poor basis upon which to base today’s library policy.
Of course I did this in typical twitter slang “me thinks world a little different in 1964???”
And the debate started. It ranged across a number of topics but my side of it essentially boiled down to five things:
1) A libraries service for 2011 probably looks very different to one in 1964
2) A libraries service for Hackney should look different than one for Gloucestershire
3) Innovation in the delivery of library services should be encouraged and this might mean different models
4) Local councils are best placed to make these decisions
5) Judicial reviews are a very bad way to decide local policy
Just for some context the general duty of library authorities as captured within section 7 of the Act:
It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof
According to the Act libraries should also have regard to three things and I have captured these at the end of the post. (See *)
So, back to my five points.
The point of libraries is to provide a service to the community. The nature of this service is fairly ill-defined but broadly includes the provision of books and other materials at no cost and the provision of a community space (a point not made specifically in the Act – bar a reference to using facilities for other cultural and educational purposes in clause 20 – but still very important).
Even in a very superficial way the world has moved on since 1964. The gramophone records mentioned in the Act have been replaced by cassettes, CDs and now i-tunes (other download options are available!). A library service today needs to meet the requirements of a community that is on-line, mobile, increasingly flexible, diverse and still geographically centred.
Those who think we can abolish libraries and move to kindles or book share only (I’ve heard it said) are as mistaken as those that think we can simply protect the porta-cabin library in each village and change nothing; which of course isn’t to say that in some locations a porta cabin village library might not be appropriate. However, if we meet in the middle we’ll be able to find solutions that meet all needs and that might just involve book share, libraries in supermarkets, kindles, web services, part time libraries, flexible public spaces, mobile libraries, traditional library buildings and everything in between.
Do local authorities have a duty to provide a decent library service? Yes. Does the definition of a decent library service vary depending on who you are trying to serve? Of course and that means we need to be more flexible not less.
Of course this flexibility is impossible if every time a small change is made the local campaigners are able to go to high court and take an injunction to stop that change; which is why I disapprove of judicial reviews about changes to library services. The campaigners will argue, rightly, that they are usually campaigning to stop cuts to libraries as opposed to the reforms I would favour.
Despite this I would still disagree with the judicial review. The cuts being made by local authorities are next to impossible and if every small group is able to go to high court to challenge the change it will be impossible to do anything at all. I don’t therefore disagree with any of the individual judgments as such; just the principle of it.
So there it is; a slightly more nuanced version of the argument that got me into so much trouble on twitter.
As @williamoulton pointed out; what I had stumbled across was a ‘good microcosm of the debate between national minimum standards and local service design’. I agree and whilst it might leave me to defend some odd positions; only by having a whole raft of locally designed and decided policies will we be able to deliver the excellent, and diverse, public services our local publics deserve.
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* In fulfilling its duty under the preceding subsection, a library authority shall in particular have regard to the desirability—
(a) of securing, by the keeping of adequate stocks, by arrangements with other library authorities, and by any other appropriate means, that facilities are available for the borrowing of, or reference to, books and other printed matter, and pictures, gramophone records, films and other materials, sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children; and
(b) of encouraging both adults and children to make full use of the library service, and of providing advice as to its use and of making available such bibliographical and other information as may be required by persons using it; and
(c) of securing, in relation to any matter concerning the functions both of the library authority as such and any other authority whose functions are exercisable within the library area, that there is full co-operation between the persons engaged in carrying out those functions.Big P Politics, The future of Local Govt comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.