In Solidarity: Standing with UK Libraries | Editorial

Last month, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) released a series of articles on the status of public libraries in the UK. The news is dramatic. More than 300 libraries have been closed since 2010—the reported total of 343 includes 132 mobile libraries, with over 100 more on the chopping block—and almost 8,000 jobs have been lost. The advocacy drumbeat for UK libraries has been sounding for some time, with prominent authors and celebrities offering their support. Staring down the numbers reported by the BBC has spurred a barrage of public and professional response—some reinforcing negative stereotypes and others helping to build the case for more investment.

LRebeccaWebEdit2015ast month, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) released a series of articles on the status of public libraries in the UK. The news is dramatic. More than 300 libraries have been closed since 2010—the reported total of 343 includes 132 mobile libraries, with over 100 more on the chopping block—and almost 8,000 jobs have been lost. The advocacy drumbeat for UK libraries has been sounding for some time, with prominent authors and celebrities offering their support. Staring down the numbers reported by the BBC has spurred a barrage of public and professional response—some reinforcing negative stereotypes and others helping to build the case for more investment.

I reached out to Nick Poole, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), the library association for the UK, to get a better sense of what’s happening on the ground and behind the scenes. “It is important to keep the situation in perspective,” he wrote back via email. “Every day, public libraries and librarians across the UK are delivering fantastic, innovative services that go right to the heart of their communities.”

This outlook is welcome and reminds me of how often the death of libraries is exaggerated by those who either don’t use them or make presumptions about them based on little information. Nevertheless, the communities that have lost their libraries and the ones under threat point to a system facing serious pressure. Poole cites an extended recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 and what he calls “a swing to the political right in the UK.” It resulted in rapid cuts, including at the local level, which funds libraries and is also required to provide “a comprehensive and efficient library service,” according to gov.uk.

“Some councils have fought hard to protect their public libraries as a vital part of communities and local economies,” says Poole. “Others have made shortsighted decisions based on ‘keeping up appearances’—maintaining [volunteer-run] opening hours at the expense of professional roles.”

Advocates are engaged. “The UK library community is taking steps to address these issues,” says Poole. “At a local level, campaigners and activists are working hard to defend individual public libraries and library service. They have challenged poor decisions by councils and mobilized local community support.”

The tension sounds quite familiar, and the need to inform stakeholders and the public requires constant vigilance. One initiative CILIP developed is the “My Library by Right” campaign to raise awareness of the requirement for library service, to counter prevailing misconceptions about what libraries provide, and to build understanding of what recourse is available.

A longer term solution, says Poole, is to move toward a national library strategy, shifting the governance of libraries away from the local councils. This direction has had some success already in Scotland, he adds, and is gaining traction in Wales and Northern Ireland. With such deep reform currently stymied in England, however, a “Leadership for Libraries Taskforce” is focused first on improving the perception about libraries.

“We are already one of the most successful public services the UK has—cost-effective and with over 265 million visits last year,” says Poole. “Once we have addressed the underlying governance and funding issues...we need to...maintain [libraries’] vital and successful role at the heart of civic life in the UK.”

Hard lessons have been learned. “We could have been better prepared as a community, and we will be next time,” says Poole. “But for now the priority is to protect the public good by defending the public right to quality public libraries.”

When asked what international peers can do to help, Poole called for “support in fighting back. You can do that by signing the My Library by Right petition and using the comments to share a message of solidarity and support with public librarians in the UK. Later we will need your support in rebuilding our public library network and ensuring that it is resilient and well led enough to weather the inevitable future storms.”

May we see that day. The best library is open, well supported, well managed, and one that people use and love. The most tragic library is neglected, rarely open, poorly managed, and not used or cared about. Driving down the required investment in the former creates the self-fulfilling prophecy delivered by the latter. I stand with UK libraries as they struggle to stabilize and rebuild.

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UK Library Volunteer

Sarah - I meant the Chief Librarians who run the library services rather than the branch staff, who I agree are having a very difficult time. My concern is that CILIP doesn’t appear to have any constructive or innovative ideas concerning small libraries. When there is a substantial cut in funding the professional answer is too often to close smaller libraries leaving just the bigger libraries. Whilst this may suit professional librarians it is a disaster for smaller communities. It is worth remembering that a volunteer library can easily become a paid staff library, but a closed library is almost certainly a permanent service reduction.

Posted : Apr 20, 2016 06:55


UK Library Volunteer

Yes - UK public libraries are having a difficult time. Over the decade (2005-2015) visits to UK public libraries declined 25%, cash expenditure declined 20%, staff numbers were 34% down and professional staff numbers declined a massive 58%. Cuts are likely to continue until at least 2019. The Conservative government isn’t bothered. Prime Minister Cameron never mentions or visits public libraries. Contrast this with the interest in education and libraries shown by President Obama and Michelle Obama. As it happens I am a volunteer who helps out at a UK volunteer library. I agree with the points made by ‘anonymous coward’. I can’t agree with Mr Poole’s assertion about “maintaining [volunteer-run] opening hours at the expense of professional roles.” Mr Poole needs to be reminded that volunteers are keeping many small UK libraries open because the library professionals, who manage library services, have failed to come up with anything better. The public rightly value the accessibility and community benefit that small libraries bring. The public gets this even if Mr Poole and the UK professional librarians body - CILIP don’t.

Posted : Apr 18, 2016 04:43

Sarah

"Mr Poole needs to be reminded that volunteers are keeping many small UK libraries open because the library professionals, who manage library services, have failed to come up with anything better." This is incorrect. The library professionals (qualified, trained library staff) have been made redundant as part of the cuts made to public libraries. They haven't had any choice. Volunteers are attempting to keep libraries open, but they cannot possibly offer the same service that qualified, trained and paid staff can, which we are already seeing.

Posted : Apr 18, 2016 04:43

Anonymous Coward

"they cannot possibly offer the same service that qualified, trained and paid staff can" Surely there are bad librarians and great volunteers... I would debate that it is possible.

Posted : Apr 18, 2016 04:43


anonymous coward

While I appreciate Mr. Poole's position- his solution is something I could hardly be more opposed to. It's the locality and unique nature of our public libraries here that allow them to thrive. Some will fall, others rise. They can focus on the needs of their local community. A national bureaucracy of a library system would only struggle to keep the local needs met- as happens every time a service is centralized and removed. Local is better. As I've mentioned before, even with the losses of their libraries recently, the UK is still at a higher rate of libraries per capita than the US- and the distance between them not so great. They are doing just fine, and any calls for radical change are just as silly as calls that they are dying.

Posted : Apr 14, 2016 06:44


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