Closing Libraries (and other heresies)


To close or not to close? That is the question...

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.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

* 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.

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15 Comments on “Closing Libraries (and other heresies)”

  1. Will Says:

    Is the problem here not Judicial Review or the Service design but the act? Surely there the act already allows sufficient flexibility for authorities to demonstrate how their service is designed to meet the demands of those people ‘desiring to make use thereof’. Surely this allows councils to meet your concern about service needs being different in Hackney and Gloucestershire. This should already be the case as I am assuming that Hackney has no mobile library unit but Gloucestershire will have?

    I haven’t read the judgement against Gloucestershire County Counil from the Courts that prevented the closure of facilities there but it would be interested to see how they interpretted the act.


  2. I am a campaigner in Gloucestershire.
    I have just finished a long day at work so am not going to enter into a debate with you here about the public libraries act etc but I suggest you have a look at what we have been through here. The judicial review here is far from being used lightly. You should know that judicial reviews are not granted lightly either. It is not simply a case that “every small group is able to go to high court to challenge the change” we are not a “small group” there has been a huge outcry and public condemnation of the plans here and we have tried every other channel open to us in order to enter into a sensible dialogue with the council. We have been ignored consistantly and treated with contempt. In a rural county the size of GLoucestershire ALL mobile services are set to be desposed of. With no alternatives.
    Also, if you did your research you would know that the cuts in Gloucestershire are FAR from “small change” the changes are huge, unprecidented and drastic. As detailed here

    http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/the-councils-plans/

    so please do not dismiss this as merely campaigners making a fuss about nothing.

    Judicial reviews may not be the way forward to stop “small changes” but when the changes are likely to be irreversibly damaging to the future of our library services and elected represntatives refuse to listen to or address the concerns of the electorate then the courts are the only way forward and a last port of call.
    (apologies for the spelling mistakes but this website seems a bit jittery)

  3. Demelza Says:

    Hi. I am also a Gloucestershire library user who has been campaigning against the scale of the cuts here, which as the previous commentor said, are not a ‘small change’ but rather a permanent dismantling of the library network which will leave many people (including some of the most vulnerable) without access at all.

    Judicial review was a last resort, and the decision was made by the campaign group to support the judicial review as we felt all other option to engage with the councillors involved through the democratic process and over a nearly 9-month time period have been futile. We have been misled, ignored (along with a 16,000-signature petition – apparently the second biggest ever in the county) and frozen out of meetings, discussions and negotiations over the future of the service (along with others who disagree with the administrations plans), while all the time the council leader has repeated his mantra that his plans respond to the needs of local people and are what they want.

    The decision to go ahead with the library cuts in the face of such public opposition and concerns of illegality was even ‘called-in’ by opposition councillors, but the committee bias towards the administration (who have a large majority both on council as a whole and in the committee itself) was clear and none of the concerns were adressed.

    I, and many others in Gloucestershire, don’t believe the administration should be able to get away with this, and having exhausted all other avenues, supporting the JR seemed the only option – nor a decision that was taken lightly. It has been extremely stressful and time-consuming dealing with all the media attention and debate and criticism that has come from this, and no small feat to try and raise the many thousands of pounds required by the Legal Sevices Commission as ‘community contribution’ towards the costs of the case.

    I believe, in principal, that JRs shouldn’t be necessary, and that councillors should respond and reflect the needs/concerns of their tax payers/electorate, and should not embark on plans where their are clear concerns, from several sources, of illegality. Clearly though this has not been happening in Gloucestershire with regard to the library cuts.


    • Thanks for the comments; really interesting to hear the story of a campaigner and why you decided to get involved.

      I maintain my belief that JRs are not a good thing in terms of local democracy but whilst the option is there I can certainly understand why you’ve gone down the route you have.

  4. Passchendael Says:

    In some places libraries need to be closed.

    In some places libraries need to be opened.

    In all places library services need to be delivered to the needs of the 21st century not 1964.

    Sadly, Britain’s libraries are ill served by Britain’s library campaigners who will never countenance the closure of a single library and whose self righteousness (witness “you don’t know what we’ve been through”) makes them just the sort of people that decision makers don’t want to talk to.

    Memo to library campaigners:

    1) Understand the pressures councils are under better

    2) Realise that councils have to run services that ARE more important than libraries. If a council doesn’t have enough money, I hope that they cut libraries before they cut social services. Cut social services too much and you might end with dead children.

    3) Try and find some solutions to the problems that libraries face. There are going to be less librarians and less libraries than there have been because the government has decided to give councils less money. So, if you want to find ways of keeping libraries open then you might have to contemplate some of the things you detest. Like volunteers, or partnerships with the private sector (please, library campaigners, get your dictionaries out and understand the difference between “outsourcing” and “privatisation”) or partnerships with other councils.

    4) Realise that the 1964 Act is a dead duck, written for another age, and if it’s not out of date in law, it’s out of date in reality – like the fact that in 1965 we abolished the death penalty, although hanging remained on the statute book until 1998.

    And, when you’ve done this you might be able to have dialogue with government and councils.

    Because at the moment, you come across as a load of uncompromising ultras living in a fantasy land who don’t make any basis for a discussion with councils or government and who are far, far too comfortable with abuse of public servants just doing their jobs when you can’t get your own way.

    • Johanna Says:

      witness the arrogance of a person who thinks they know it all. The “you don’t know what we have been through” that you dismiss as “self-righteousness” begins an explanation as to why people have resorted to judicial review, in response to the author of this post who appears to think it was decision taken, and granted, lightly in response to “small changes”. It refers to the processes gone through before this stage is reached, processes and context of which the author seems unaware of. The arrogance of the above commenter is exactly an example of the attitude shown to library users that forces them to go to court. There are hundreds of campaigners who have varying views about the future of libraries, just as there are numerous authorities who have chosen to deal with budget reductions in different ways. These sweeping comments, assumptions and rudeness do nothing to encourage conversation. I do not think this is unintentional – I have seen it many times before from people who do not want an open and respectful dialogue with service users as it is inconvenient.
      Memo : Decision makers do not have to have a dialogue because they “feel like it” but because they are elected representatives who are supposed to serve the people who elected them. Some would do well to remember that

      • R P Dutt Says:

        Who’s abusing public servants ‘just doing their jobs’? Unison, the local government officers’ trade union, has been working with local campaigns and passed a resolution at their annual conference, committing them to:
        ‘build alliances across the library network, including users and local communities;
        fight for a key public service which makes up just 1% of local government spending, but is invaluable in improving people’s life chances.’
        I doubt if the people running this blog are representative of local government officers. I suspect it to be the creation of some young men and women in a hurry to get to the top, who think closing some libraries will look good on their cvs.

    • Ian Says:

      Presumably we should just turn a blind eye to the money they are hiving off for ‘Big Society’ projects too? In Kent they are putting aside £5m whilst they plan cuts to services (including libraries). All the time councils such as Kent do this (and Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire have done much the same) the argument that the ‘council doesn’t have enough money’ to support social services and libraries just does not wash.

      Memo to library cutters:

      1) Deliver a better argument.
      2) Stop using emotional blackmail that is not rooted in either fact or logic.
      3) Stop living in your little fantasy world and understand that vulnerable people rely on their library service. We are not all comfortable, middle-class 21st century types who have all the resources we need.
      4) Listen to people, don’t just railroad them because it inconveniences your weak ideology.

  5. Jim Says:

    The 1964 Act, thank heavens, is not a duck, dead or toehrwise. it is a lifeline to education, work, friendship, life and the future. Try tying your ankles together and living in a wheelchair for at least six weeks then see which libraries you want to close – or perhaps just live with a disabled person and push them to and from the library.In short, get real.

  6. Will Says:

    Certainly some passion on this topic. It will be interesting from a professional point of view to see what the courts make of the combined JR into library closures in Gloucestershire and elsewhere.

    I don’t personally think the act is too restrictive as we already have different types of library provision to meet local needs. What appears to be the problem hear is one of how to engage effectively from both sides maybe (I’m hedging my bet and trying to be diplomatic so please don’t hurt me).

    What it does show that Councils and communities should start honest dialogue as soon as possible about how best they can work together to get the best out of services in straightened times.

  7. Ed Hammond Says:

    When cuts of any nature are proposed it’s the duty of the authority to engage openly and honestly with service users.

    Not doing so is a sure-fire way of fast-tracking yourself on a road to a JR against you. Not doing so also does a grave disservice to the people who use the service in question.

    Part of this dialogue involves campaigners, coming from the other side of the argument, to understand where the council is coming from and being prepared to enter into a dialogue and debate about things.

    That debate may well be about whether the current nature of service provision is appropriate for the future. Everyone involved has to keep an open mind. Debate has to be based on evidence and has to be carried out on an understanding of mutual respect.

    The council has to be open and transparent about how the decision will eventually be made. The goalposts can’t be continually shifted. Officers and members have to be prepared to change their minds too. There is still a worryingly doctrinaire view in many councils about the way in which consultations are transacted, and the way in which decisions are made. Sadly, Passchendael’s views very much reflect the attitude that, “the council knows best, and campaigner are just annoying”. Those of us working in authorities must accept that, on matters of such significant local concern as this, we have to be prepared to go the extra mile to talk to campaigners, even if we may feel that they have completely unrealistic expectations of what can and can’t be achieved.

    Will’s comments above are absolutely on the money.

    I should declare a personal interest in that my mother used to work as a librarian in Gloucestershire… and I should stress that none of the foregoing should be interpreted as conveying anything other than a general view of the way that councils involve local people, as I know nothing at all about the complex circumstances surrounding the Gloucestershire proposals.


  8. […] those who missed it the WLLG blogger argued that there needed be a real debate about libraries and suggested that: Those who think we […]


  9. […] regular readers of this blog will know we have got ourselves into a fair bit of trouble when discussing libraries. So, before I continue please let me state that I actually like and value […]


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