(By Anonymous)

He leaned over the library counter and said “If they close this
library I will do myself in”. The old man was not someone I
recognised, meaning he was one of the many quiet ones that came in
and, a few hour later, went out again. On the outside, he looked
perfectly normal and nothing about him showed desperation. You would
never have known that he was on the edge.

But there are many people who use libraries who are like that. Indeed,
perhaps it is precisely that fact that they use libraries that it is
not obvious that they’re on the edge. The public library provides a
haven for so many people, asking no questions and demanding no money.
Anyone can come in out of the cold, and the dark, and sit down, read a
book, a newspaper, use the internet or grab a few prized words with a
fellow human being. That link with civilization, and with community,
is something that can be taken for granted in those not on the edge.
But it is something treasured by those less fortunate.

Now let’s go to the other end of the age spectrum. A child, wide-eyed,
is being read a Christmas story. It’s one of the special evening
storytimes that are done this time of year. I tell you,  some of these
are downright magical. We turn the lights down, the Christmas tree
lights shine in the corner and the little ones get a Santa story read
to them. As they come in, a community choir (we’re all about
community) is singing carols and at the end, Santa (a volunteer, again
from neighbourhood) makes a “surprise” appearance. He was jangling
cow-bells a few seconds before behind the scenes so the kids could
hear the reindeer arriving. This could be the only time these kids see
a Santa over the holidays, as we don’t charge and money can be
important, especially this time of year. It will certainly be the only
time that some will be in the same room as other kids and their
parents, all engaged in the same thing. We’re teaching them how to
behave and interact at this most wonderful time of the year.

Then we have those who have nowhere else to go because the council
offices are closed on Christmas week. One chap has just made homeless
and has nowhere else to go. He needs an emergency payment for food and
a room so he’s not outside walking past the Christmas decorations in
warm people’s homes. Another is doing a job application because he’s
just been made redundant. Who sacks people in December? Well, it turns
out, quite a few people. He has a mobile phone but no internet at home
so he needs the library to do a CV. I lean over and correct some
spellings, showing him how to attach the email. He breathes out as he
pressed “send”, a weight lifted off his shoulders as a job which
should never have to be done this time of year gets done.

The thing is, public libraries are quiet over Christmas. It’s not our
busiest time of year. That’s the Summer when hordes of kids come in
with their parents and keep their reading levels up over the holidays,
rewarded by stickers and medals. But it’s the season where the people
using us most need us. They’ll do it quietly, walk in and do the
stuff, whatever it is, be it browsing the books and taking out ten
romances to keep them going over the few days we’re shut, or smiling
gratefully at a simple task done for them or nodding to a familiar
face. But it’s the time of year when they these people don’t have
anywhere else to go. And we’re there for them, which makes me so
proud, especially when I go home to my family, knowing that I’ve been
part of a Christmas story for these people the quiet equal of any
saccharine seasonal film my kids may watch on TV. 

The futures of up to 28 libraries across Northamptonshire have been put at risk as part of cost-cutting proposals announced this week. On October 16th cash-strapped council chiefs revealed a series of early budget proposals they say will save the authority £9.6 million. However, the measures are a prelude to a far greater series of cuts due to be announced in December.

Among them the council has announced plans to “redesign” library services across the county, putting up to 28 at risk including those in Far Cotton, Kingsthorpe, and Abington – all smaller libraries in Northampton. (The word “redesign” used in the sense that Henry VIII redesigned monasteries.)

The authority is to put three separate proposals out to consultation this week – the first of which will be to invite community groups to run 21 smaller libraries around the county, saving the council £290,000 next year.
Options two and three, however, would involve simply shutting the doors of up to 28 book lending premises around the county.

Cabinet member for Public Health and Wellbeing, Councillor Sylvia Hughes (Con, Irthlingborough) said: “Faced with significant funding pressures, we have no option but to review the current model for Northamptonshire libraries.
“We are committed to maintaining a library service that continues to serve the most people who borrow items and those who use the library for other services, such as computer workshops, registration services and access to borough and district council services.”

The opposition Labour group has called today’s announcement a “dark day” for the county council. “These proposals will decimate the library services in our county,” said Councillor Danielle Stone (Lab, Abington and Phippsville). “In recent years libraries have become more than just borrowing books. Many things have been placed inside them such as universal services for children, training courses, birth and death registration and so on. So libraries have taken on more and more but now they are being threatened with closure. This is a dark day for Northampton and the county.”

Under all of the proposals being put forward, the mobile bus library would be withdrawn from services. Also, all of the proposals will see the county’s eight largest libraries kept. These are the Corby Cube, Kettering, Wellingborough, Abington Street (Northampton) Weston Favell (Northampton),  Rushden, Daventry and Towcester.

All libraries across the county have remained shut for a day so that staff could be informed of the proposals.

Councillor Hughes said the preferred option would be to see 21 smaller libraries taken over by community groups – even though cabinet papers show the council would save around £1 million more by closing 28 of the small and medium completely.

In a separate development the Council’s Chief executive, Paul Blantern, announced that he was leaving the authority on 13 October. Coincidentally or otherwise Mr Blantern has been the Chair of the Government Libraries Taskforce which is intended to provide leadership and support to public libraries in England. The Campaign and others have been critical of the task force’s attitude to closures and volunteer-run libraries (see below).

John Glen MP has just clocked up 100 days in post as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Arts, Heritage & Tourism. His remit also covers libraries. We tried not to read too much into this semantic oddity. Now we are
starting to wonder. He has just published a blog about his initial experiences in tourism, arts, heritage, what-have-you. Mentions of public libraries? Not a single one.

The Libraries Taskforce and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) commissioned SERIO, an applied research unit at the University of Plymouth, to conduct an England-wide research project. Research on Community (volunteer) run libraries

Library Campaign comments:

This will take a lot of digesting. The researcher himself says: ‘The
information collected cannot be considered a representative sample of
the community library sector as a whole’ and calls for more research –
a lot of it.
The truth is that DDCMS let the whole thing run out of control years
ago. So there’s infinite variety in what libraries do or do not
provide, and why this or that works – or not. Impossible to analyse,
or learn from.
What’s clear from this report is that ‘community libraries’ aren’t
confident about future staffing or funding – 70% of current volunteers
are aged over 60. Rather fundamental problems to have. ‘Income
generation’ can’t raise much, it’s clear. Local authority support is
needed in perpetuity. Will that happen?
It’s surprising the research does not take the route of comparing
performance in individual libraries before and after becoming
volunteer-run. There’s now plenty of ‘anecdotal’ evidence of steep
declines, which should be investigated  properly.
On staffing, it looks pretty scary: ‘Librarians in traditional
libraries were found to perceive various areas of training as
essential, such as Equality and Diversity, Data Protection, Freedom of
Information, and Customer Care, whereas volunteers were less likely to
perceive training as important. Further to this, both volunteers and
librarians reported undertaking less training than that perceived as
being needed.’
The Library Campaign looks forward to getting comments from the many
volunteers forced to run libraries after fighting to the end to keep
them open as council-run, properly staffed libraries. And staff who
have lost their jobs.

The debate rumbles on: should the official library agencies be quite so accepting of endless cuts? It reached flashpoint recently with reports of a conference appearance by Taskforce CEO Kathy Settle.
The most pithy was in PRIVATE EYE (issue no 1448):   
‘LIBRARIES Taskforce chief executive Kathy Settle made the mind-boggling claim at a recent local government conference that public libraries are currently flourishing: “While people focus on libraries that have closed, there aren’t that many of those – and there are hundreds that have been opened or renovated,” she insisted.  “That message doesn’t always get out.”
‘Minutes of the last Taskforce meeting, just 16 days earlier, record that Settle was present while the Taskforce discussed complaints about the lost libraries in Lancashire, Swindon, Southampton, Barnet, Bedfordshire and Darlington.  Maybe she was confused by the fact that in the minutes of a three-hour meeting, covered by more than 4,500 words, “closures” were not mentioned once, instead referred to obliquely as “ongoing changes by library authorities”.’
We asked Kathy Settle for the facts.  Here’s her reply.

Things are moving – not necessarily in the right direction for libraries – in Darlington. Crown Street library is being proposed for redevelopment or use as a Community centre and although the local MP has ‘pledged’ to save the building, she has not committed to it being a library. However a judicial review has been launched in support of the building remaining a library. Meanwhile local campaigners have made a series of videos documenting Crown Street and  about the removal of the local mobile library. See more under Library Campaigns

Things are hotting up in Darlington. The local press reports that a town centre library is up for a change to become a community centre or be sold for redevelopment.

Local campaigners have made a series of videos about their both Crown Street library and one  on the Mobile Library which came under threat from council cuts, & was then removed from service, leading to a documented decline in library usage revealed by FOI.

And finally Jenny Chapman, the local MP who was re-elected on June 8th has  threatened to chain herself to the railings to stop Darlington’s Crown Street library building being sold off – but is seemingly not doing it to save the building as a library.

Extract on public libraries from CILIP’s analysis of the various manifestos, covering all areas of publishing & libraries  are at https://www.cilip.org.uk/news/i-have-promises-keep

Labour has made a number of above-the-line policy commitments to support public libraries including:

“Libraries are vital social assets, valued by communities across the country. We will ensure libraries are preserved for future generations and updated with wi-fi and computers to meet modern needs. We will reintroduce library standards so that government can assess and guide councils in delivering the best possible service.”

CILIP has welcomed this twin emphasis on strengthening and modernising the core library service as ‘vital social assets’ and on re-introducing standards as an effective way to correct the deficiencies of the Public Libraries Act.

We also welcome the recognition of libraries as important ‘3rd spaces’ in the Women’s Equality Party Manifesto:

“The tunnel vision of our economy renders women and their contribution invisible. It fails to see the value of anything that cannot immediately be monetised; the air we breathe, the water we drink, and our green spaces. It views libraries as prime real estate for redevelopment, rather than community hubs, spaces to meet and read and learn or simply sit quietly.”

The Conservative Manifesto, on the other hand, clearly signals the continued emphasis on devolution:

“This Conservative government has devolved more power to English local authorities, closer to local people, than any previous government in over a century: across England, newly elected mayors, combined authorities, local councils and local enterprise partnerships are being empowered to improve local growth and public services. We will continue to give local government greater control over the money they raise and address concerns about the fairness of current funding distributions.”

Unfortunately, a continuation of austerity would almost certainly mean that some councils continue to explore the transfer of library services to ‘volunteer-led’ models, thereby exacerbating the existing postcode lottery of provision.

The Speak Up for Libraries alliance is urging people everywhere to make public libraries a central issue in the General Election.

The election offers us another chance to make sure central government understands that libraries are a low-cost, essential council resource for all communities. They are vital to national agendas such as ‘Digital by Default’. And they are deeply valued by local residents and the nation as a whole.

Already, many library services are threatened by, or experiencing, deep cuts, widespread closures of vital local branches – or the damaging policy of turning them over to volunteers to run.

Yet the Government continues to cut the grants given to local authorities. Local councils currently face an estimated overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2019/20. Although libraries are a statutory service, they are often seen as a soft target for cuts. Such cuts often save little but do great damage.

If people wait another five years, their own library could go. Nationally, a postcode lottery is a reality with only some communities benefitting from the presence of a council funded and professionally run library.

Libraries remain the lynchpin of communities, offering access to reading, learning, information and leisure.

Libraries are, or should be, a trusted public space for everyone.

They play a crucial role in improving literacy standards and in combatting the digital divide.

Speak Up for Libraries believes that libraries, far from being obsolete, are more important than ever. That is why we are asking the government to make a public commitment to their survival and development.

Speak Up for Libraries is asking MPs to sign up to the following manifesto when standing for election:

  • Give libraries a long-term future, with a vision for their future development and clear standards of service.

  • Enforce the commitment in law for local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. This commitment should also include digital, ICT and e-book services.

  • Acknowledge that libraries are important to individuals and communities – especially in times of hardship.

  • Enforce the duty that local authorities have to properly consult with communities to design services that meet their needs and aspirations.

  • Ensure that local authorities receive sufficient funding in order to deliver properly resourced and staffed library services.

  • Recognise that properly resourced library services contribute to the health and well-being of local communities and of society as a whole and therefore complement the work of other public services and of national government agendas.

  • Download a copy of the manifesto here: SUFL – GENERAL ELECTION 2017 manifesto

As we regularly point out, libraries are a tale of two planets. Hundreds are being closed, starved or dumped on to reluctant volunteers. Yet they remain uniquely useful, popular and are fiercely defended by their communities. Their potential to develop remains unlimited.

Unless government (national and local) gets a grip, the future is grim. Meanwhile, better information is badly needed.

A new report from Carnegie UK has plenty of good news as well as bad. Veteran campaigner Tim Coates says it should have highlighted the badness – before it’s too late.

Which do you support? Take your pick. – More here.

INFORMATION WAR?

As we regularly point out, libraries are a tale of two planets. Hundreds are being closed, starved or dumped on to reluctant volunteers. Yet they remain uniquely useful, popular and are fiercely defended by their communities. Their potential to develop remains unlimited.

Unless government (national and local) gets a grip, the future is grim. Meanwhile, better information is badly needed.

The new report from Carnegie UK has plenty of good news as well as bad. Veteran campaigner Tim Coates says it should have highlighted the badness – before it’s too late.

Which do you support? Take your pick. See more here

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE REPORT

  • Number surveyed: 10,000 (UK)
  • Period covered: 2011-16
  • 72% say libraries are essential or very important to their community.
  • Of these, only 40% say they are essential or very important to themselves personally.
  • 46% have used a library in the past year.
  • Young people (aged 15-24) are the most likely age group to use libraries in England (51%). And almost half (46%) of 25-34 year olds now use them, 2% up on 2011.
  • Over-55s are least likely to use the library.
  • Libraries in England now serve more people who are not avid readers: 37% who read only one book a year use a public library; 40% (+5 percentage points from 2011) of people who only read one book every six months are library users.
  • A sizeable percentage (21%) of people who rarely or never read books use the library.

THE BAD NEWS

  • Overall library use has dropped 4% – 50% to 46% – in the last five years.
  • Frequent library use (once a month)has dropped from 52% to 46%.

QUESTIONS

  • Are people choosing to use the library less often – or are they finding it more difficult to do so?
  • Why do so many people recognise the importance of libraries for others – but not themselves? Is it that they don’t recognise what a library offers as relevant to them? Or does the library, in fact, have little to offer them? Or don’t they know what services libraries offer? Or is it a combination of all three?
  • For instance, 48% of people said they would use the library more if they could search for and reserve books online – a service that is, in fact, already on offer.

ACTION

Since 2011, more people in England say they would use a library if a range of suggested changes and improvements were made (most popular: better information about the service; more events; providing other council services in the library).

Public libraries need to go on cultivating their ability to future-gaze, innovate and test out new ideas.

Plus – as ever – the need for better communications and branding.

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We are currently looking for a suitable venue in London for a date in July. Details shortly. Could you offer help or are you considering standing as a Trustee? Please get in touch.  We  would welcome any offers of help and are particularly keen to encourage new Trustees to join us to strengthen and develop what we can achieve as a charity. 

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