Monday, 26 January 2015

Hubs: or, Thoughts of an "anti-hubber"

"Today’s anti-hubbers may come to look as foolish as those 19th-century segregationists and pamphleteers do to us". 

This quotation comes from a thoughtful article from December's Guardian, by Lucy Mangan. She doesn't mean it as a compliment, but I've decided to embrace the word "anti-hubber" (and yes, I do know that using labels such as this is meant to belittle). I consider myself to be a proud anti-hubber: here's why:

I think it's a fad. It isn't a recent one, of course: under another name, I first came across it as one of the ideas of Dame Shirley Porter, who was, oh younger readers, Leader of Westminster City Council, where I both worked and lived in the 1980s. Do feel free to Google her: I won't say anything more about that, other than to point out that that association might just possibly have coloured my opinion, and, again, it isn't a new idea.

I think it's a fad with a purpose: to save (minute amounts of) money, to de-professionalise the staff, to take over the nicer library buildings and subvert them to another purpose, to get rid of those library buildings which are in need of investment. 

I think it is also an umbrella term for many different things. I've been challenged on my obvious reluctance to embrace the brave new world of hubs by one member of the library profession who says that, if library-led, a hub can be a vibrant new thing which can breathe new life into the library service. That would be great (although I have my doubts): but then I haven't seen anything like this in practice. With the right input perhaps the library model can be adapted: but, how often are these proposals library-led? and, what exactly is meant by a hub?

 I have been asked "what is a hub?" many times recently, by people who are puzzled by the term. In Cardiff we have just been through one of those "consultation" processes which included a page and a half of options for changing libraries into hubs, moving library services into different areas and amalgamating with other services, &c. &c.. One person said to me "I want to keep my library, but if a hub is the only option I would rather have that than nothing, but then I don't know what a hub is!" Another, who was a Welsh-speaker, assumed it was connected to the Welsh word "hybu", which means "encourage", or perhaps "inspire". If you read the Guardian article mentioned above it seems to be implying that it means having a cafe on site (the context is the Sieghart report on England's libraries). In Cardiff it seems to mean a building in which any other council functions might also take place, in particular housing or benefits advice. Cardiff has some "hubs" which do not include library services, so you could not assume that a "hub" would always have library services in it. At the moment Cardiff's libraries are in a council portfolio dealing with social issues ("Community, Development, Co-operatives, and Social Enterprise") - at least, I think that's what that means - so the proposed new "hubs" reflect that. They have also in the past been in the education portfolio (at which point it was suggested at least by one person that they should be located in schools) and, more recently, in leisure services (when it was suggested rather more frequently that libraries should be in leisure centres or swimming pools). At one point they were joined with bereavement services, although locating libraries in cemeteries mercifully doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone. In some other local authorities they are in "enterprise hubs", which are more like business information centres - which used in fact to be not uncommon in public libraries. Other ideas mooted elsewhere have included library services being run from a variety of buildings which are not part of the relevant council, such as pubs and police stations. 

The trouble to my mind with all of these suggestions is that I do really believe that a library should be - neutral isn't possible, but as neutral as it can be. There are lots of people who really would not want to go into a building shared with a police station or a religious institution. Plenty of people don't like the idea of going into a pub. Others would hesitate to take their children to a building which is also the main point of assistance for ex-offenders looking for help with housing: victims of circumstance the majority may be, but there will be some who are not, and surely I don't need to point out all the potential problems which might arise? It works the other way round too: if you are going to register a death, do you really want to do it in a public library, which is not only public but might be full of children having a merry time just when you least want to be confronted with that? In Kent, you might have to. Closer to home in Cardiff there are serious questions about confidentiality in those buildings which have combined a library service with social help. Where is the confidentiality, if you have a housing problem which might be caused by your domestic situation, and you are expected to broadcast this to your neighbours in the middle of a public library? 

The advantages of co-locating services are clearly mainly to save money, as the state, even at the local level, retreats. Fewer buildings (and staff) mean lower overheads. Perhaps the "hub" concept actually can mean expanding services in some areas (the social services-type hub, not the posh-cafe hub). Around 18 months ago, for instance, Cardiff closed its much-loved branch library in Ely, a relatively deprived area. Ely Library was a lovely purpose-built library, designed by staff and students from the Welsh School of Architecture. (How I wished, when I was the branch librarian at more affluent but less well-provided-for Rhiwbina, that I could have uprooted this delightful building and moved it to north Cardiff!) Library services were moved across the road to "The Hub", and, according to the Minister, it was a great improvement. I have to accept that his statistics are correct, but I find this astonishing. A 60% increase in users? If true, that is splendid, and I eat my words (but can it be?) 

The closed Ely library had no notice on it telling people that there was still a library service in the area - only a brief note to say that there was nothing worth stealing left in the building, or words to that effect. From the road, there is no clue that there is a library service inside The Hub, but at least The Hub does still provide a library service in an area where it is sorely needed (another branch library in the vicinity closed some years ago). Other "hubs" proposed are to take the place of existing libraries which will close, and are not necessarily in the same areas as those libraries.

These examples are all at one end of the spectrum, but the article in the Guardian seems to be envisaging something quite different: a smart coffee shop with books. The idea of income generation has been put forward in Cardiff too. This raises one other awkward thing: the relationship of the public and private sectors. Local small businesses can be very supportive; a public facility such as a library draws customers to the area and there is a certain amount of mutual interdependence. One wonders whether that would survive the library becoming a competitor. This all might depend on the location of the library, of course.

A hub, then, can mean whatever you want it to mean. One essential seems to be that the word "library" must not appear anywhere in its vicinity. (Why? Has it become toxic?) 

Once libraries lose their separate identity (apart perhaps from those which have successfully transformed themselves and remained under the aegis of something that is recognisably still library-controlled) they are at the mercy of the services with which they have been co-located. We have already seen this in a way in Cardiff, with local libraries which were located in small suburban shopping precincts in the 1960s and 1970s for what would have seemed at the time to be forward-looking reasons: taking the libraries to where people were, taking advantage of the footfall of the shopping centres to encourage people into the libraries, and vice versa: but as those same shopping centres declined, the libraries were left stranded and blighted with them. If the whole concept of the "hub" falls out of favour, what happens to the library services then? What happens if there is a political change in the relevant authority, which leads to different priorities? 

It is so easy to criticise doubters as being Luddites, opposed to change, stuck in the past, and so on. It's a very difficult charge to counter. "Change" has been the mantra of the past 30 years. People my age have not only lived through a lot of change, we are even beginning to see some of the same ideas come round again, dressed as new concepts. It would be nice if someone, occasionally, would listen to the voices of experience who already know what hasn't worked before, and why.

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