Fixing what isn’t broken, redux—The Future of Libraries, Part 1

A while back we discussed some of the incoherent thinking, if that’s actually the appropriate word, surrounding the Borough of Camden’s approach to fixing what they saw as a problem with the district libraries—they weren’t providing what was called, by the expensive design consulting team hired by the Borough, a “memorable library experience.” The grisly details are here. As you might expect, there have been developments. And as you might also expect, they have not been positive.

Let’s start with what the Borough decided to do with my own local library, the Heath Library. Gone is the checkout desk staffed by people who could be helpful and knowledgeable about the library contents and the services offered. Instead we now have two large black box machines with which one now checks books in and out. They also look as if they could dispense a pretty classy cup of coffee, but I haven’t checked too closely. And instead of several helpful staff, known to all, we now have one or two new people—well, one is an old familiar, but most of the staff that had been there for years are no longer part of the local landscape. And the designated librarian, if that’s what their role is, now sits off in a corner at a little desk. Except when he or she is spending considerable time explaining to people how to operate the machines, when the machines are actually working, or taking in books and checking them out when they’re down. Gone also is the children’s program, led by the enthusiastic librarian that was a stroller magnet for eleven years as local young mothers and their offspring piled into the library on a regular basis for some entertaining reading to children of all ages. You know, the kind of things libraries are supposed to do. Well, it’s summer now, and we’ll see if it starts up in the fall. She has been hived off to sort books in the basement of another library.

It’s fairly clear that the Borough wants to tank the library system—they just have a clever way of going about it. By tanking, I don’t mean they want to shut the whole thing down, which may or may not be occurring in some of London’s other boroughs. They just want to be able to close some of the local libraries and migrate everything to the larger ones, although they won’t actually admit this. For example, about two thirds of the staff in the Borough’s libraries have been reassigned, and some controversial and expensive redundancies have apparently occurred. Our wonderful librarian who did the children’s programs now finds herself sorting boxes in the basement of the Swiss Cottage Library, one of the larger libraries around. Now, you don’t do this in order to produce a Taylor effect, or to raise morale. You do this if you want to get people to resign. You especially do this if you want them to resign so that you don’t have to lay them off—if you do that you’re responsible for a whole bunch of benefits and cots that don’t arise if people actually resign. It should tell you something about the state of the modern Labour party that the Borough of Camden is now controlled by Labour councellors. (Parenthetically, one of the more interesting and unexplained aspects of New Labour was its outright anti-intellectualism. No wonder Blair got on so well with Bush.)

This sort of thing is not restricted to Camden, sadly. We’re in a new cost cutting deficit war, I gather, which means that libraries make a very easy target for Councils around Britain looking to cut costs, as they are. Britain has closed 82 libraries over the past three years, and the budget cuts have just begun. It’s not that I’m without some sympathy for those who have to make some painful decisions at the local level on what services will be cut over the next several years—there are some difficult choices looming. But everyone has their own cause, and mine is libraries.

Rachel Cooke over at The Observer has been doing yeoman work on this issue for the past four years. In a brilliant series of articles, she has diligently and astutely described New Labour’s war on libraries. Not an active war, per so, but more of a passive campaign to avoid doing much of anything to forestall library closures. Cooke has made libraries her cause, and she has done as much as anyone, more really, to raise the issue and keep it on the table at both local and national levels. She was the prime force behind the Wirral Borough Council’s move to rescind its earlier decision to close half its libraries.

Cooke is angry, as well she should be. Mrs. W and I had the opportunity of hearing her speak at the Heath Library not too long ago on the issue of library closures, just at the time the Heath Library had reopened, with the new machines and horrible stickers on the wall that were supposed to brighten the place up. Cooke didn’t pull any punches. It’s not enough that councils around Britain are seeking to close libraries. That’s not the real sin here, although that’s grievous enough. Rather, according to enterprising local reporter Charlotte Chambers, Cooke points out that under various culture Ministers under New Labour, the role envisioned for libraries was undergoing a significant change:

Ms Cooke said the gravest dangers come from Whitehall as successive culture ministers have all had visions for the future of libraries, she said, and none of them have included books.
From David Lammy to Margaret Hodge and Andy Burnham, they have all followed a model that would see libraries become noisier places with cafés, more computers, and, in some cases, such as in the Idea Store in Whitechapel, mobile phones, the writer said.
“Only later did I realise that, for many of our politicians, books really are not central to the library experience,” said Ms Cooke. “Yoga rooms are just as important, and coffee shops, and even computer games. In fact, why call them libraries at all?”

All of this is on the heels of a new report issued by the Labour government in April 2010, under then Culture Minister, and long time know-nothing blowhard, Margaret Hodge. This report, called The Modernisation Review of Public Libraries: a Policy Statement, is a fascinating document, and is a virtual apotheosis of everything that New Labour stood for—a perverse combination of noble aspirations and shoddy thinking. Of course, with a new government, who knows whether or nor this document is even now worth the electrons its electronically transmitted on, but it’s still worth a perusal for its embodiment of some of the risks that libraries face, and some of the crackpot solutions being offered. The press release accompanying the release of the report provides a helpful summary of what’s being proposes, some of it with a straight face:

The paper includes proposals to:
* Recommend all local authorities have a ‘national core offer’ for the public, comprising membership from birth, free access to the internet, a right to order any book to borrow (even those out of print), free access to e-books as the market grows, opening hours to suit users, and an opportunity to be a member of all libraries in England;
* Create a ‘local offer’ as well, which could include commitments on bookstock, events programmes, activities and other services like CD and DVD lending;
* Offer best practice guidance to local authorities on consulting their communities about the library service, putting local people at the centre of the service;
* Make all libraries ‘digitally inclusive’ with easier – and free – access to the internet for users, along with advice on how people can get the most from online access;
* Consider establishing a new, strategic body for libraries to provide leadership and development for the sector, and with the formal power to advise the Secretary of State. This body would also run an accreditation programme, awarding a ‘Book Mark’ for the best services, which could be linked to funding opportunities; and
* Look at a radical approach to new partnerships across existing local authority boundaries, possibly linking with other public functions like post offices and private sector services such as coffee shops.

As an example of muddled thinking, it would be hard to top this. Consider the first proposal. The “national core offer” sounds ok, assuming it means what I think it does. And free access to books—well, that’s the point of libraries, I would have thought. But then we get e-books, out of the blue. E-books have been around for what, three years or so? How will this work? Will libraries buy them from Amazon, or whomever? And will there be free access for users? If so, that pretty much kills Amazon’s business model, and I’m not sure Amazon will appreciate that. Will people actually be able to check out a Kindle for a couple of weeks? So what does this mean, exactly? Cooke, in her talk at Heath Library, commented that on the basis of her conversations with various Culture Ministers, the government just loves the e-book concept. Of course, it’s not clear they really understand the concept, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the first time in recent years that new onrushing technologies have been barely understood by enthusiastic proponents and recipients. One thinks of all those CEO’s of major corporations in the late 1990s whose clarion calls of “Get me the internet, whatever that is” still resonate.

The second bullet looks straightforward enough, until you let that term “bookstock” sink in. Is that what we call books these days? And of course it’s not clear what a “commitment to bookstock” means—a minimum number of books? Or what?

I don’t get that third one either. What does putting local people at the “center” mean? This sounds like a move to take a lot of the power that currently (and deservedly) resides with librarians away from them and give it to—well, that’s not clear. But it certainly opens up local control issues in a way that don’t arise now. Does this mean that a community has veto power on books in the local library? In the US it sure would, as we’ll see.

And what does free internet access mean? Free wi-fi? That would be pretty cool for all of us. But at a time when library budgets are under pressure, would this mean not buying books? More sloppy thinking.

But it’s that last bullet that really tells you where this is going. Coffee shops? How long will it be before someone thinks having a McDonalds in public libraries is a good idea. I imagine McDonalds does, that’s for sure. Let’s see, Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Coffee, Burgers. Yum. All of this at a time when councils are seeking to close libraries right and left.

Fortunately, in the UK there are legal limits to closures, and I suspect we’ll see them tested in the not too distant future. That’s because there’s something called the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964, which is a national law requiring local governments to provide library services. What we may soon find out is what represents the minimal fulfillment of this commitment. As we’ll see in a future post, this isn’t necessarily the case in the US, where we’re seeing outright threats to the very existence of public libraries in a number of municipalities.

We now have a new Culture Minister, who I assume will be taking another look at all of this. That libraries need more support is not in doubt, although it’s not likely there will be ore money for libraries in the UK n the near future. And that there needs to be some serious thinking about the role of libraries in the future also seems pretty clear. With the internet, and now e-books, the whole role of books and knowledge in our culture is undergoing some serious changes, which the culture is still grappling with. I’ve always thought of the internet as being simply the world’s largest library, and growing. But it’s not clear to me that any of the above proposals in any way deals with what the internet offers in a serious way. Nor does it address the serious questions surrounding what libraries can be reasonably expected to provide their communities, and how this is to be funded. Books and knowledge, certainly. Coffee shops? That’s not clear, although it does seem as if that’s the direction New Labour wanted to take us, and that may still be the case for the Borough of Camden.

Rachel Cooke touched on a number of these themes in her talk at the Heath Library, but two stood out, First, the ongoing effort throughout the UK of trying to think of libraries as providing services for a whole raft of things, but at the same time cutting budgets for books. This seems odd, but it’s an undeniable trend. But it’s also the case that the future of books is a hot topic as well, as we’ll see. Second, in a place like Hampstead there’s a well-organized, highly literate, active constituency to support the library, one that would be happy (maybe) about, and capable of (certainly), providing volunteer services to keep the libraries open, if nothing else. Cooke thinks that’s a slippery slope, since it allows the local council to avoid some of its statutory responsibilities and offloading them on volunteers—and she’s got a point. Well, maybe Hampstead could deal with this capably, but it’s not clear that poorer parts of the city could. There are some interesting talking points here, and we need some clearer thinking than what the above st of proposals embodies.

But it’s also fair to say that the future of public libraries is under some threat. Not only from budget cuts everywhere (we’ll look at the impact of these in the next post), but also from some legitimate issues surrounding how we collect, embody, and transmit knowledge—what libraries have been doing in one form or another for centuries. As John Chambers, the head of Cisco, once said, The Internet Changes Everything. And that’s particularly true for this issue of knowledge, the kind of stuff we used to go to libraries for. In the future, will we still need to? Or will something Google-like come along and replace the public libraries? In some ways, that’s already happening, and while librarians are certainly aware of it, it’s not clear that politicians and policy decision-makers are, although they may be familiar with some of the buzzwords. There’s a lively and important debate to be had here, but few are actually having it.

Meanwhile, the Heath Library is a bit poorer as a “library experience” as a result of the Borough of Camden’s sloppy and superficial thinking, not to mention the botched interior paint job and those ridiculous stickers that now adorn the walls. It will survive, and thrive, largely because it has a dedicated and politically astute (not to mention well-off) group of supporters, something that isn’t always the case for local libraries. But it’s starting to look like the exception, not the rule, for the future of local public libraries in the UK. But as we’ll see in the next post, the libraries in the UK are actually in considerably better shape than are libraries in the US.

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