Monday, 12 January 2015

Public libraries: victim of local government reorganisation?

The current plight of public libraries in the UK is by now recognised even outside the profession. The last five years have seen an unprecedented attack on them, sparked off or at least given wings by a consultants' report by KPMG in 2010 which claimed that librarians were "over-skilled" and that one way forward was to take public libraries out of local government control and let them be run by volunteers (if at all).

I am not going to rehearse all the arguments and the various attempts across the UK to reduce the public library service here, but one factor which hasn't had much attention strikes me quite forcibly: that this has come about largely as a result of the reforms in local government which took place in the 1990s, in particular the introduction of the cabinet model.

At one time, local councils split their various functions into small, discrete, manageable chunks. Education, clearly, was always a large and important department, as was social services. Other smaller services though also had their own committees, with their own dedicated council member who chaired the committee and a number of other councillors who took an active part. With the introduction of cabinet-style government, the functions were rationalised, no doubt getting rid of some unnecessary bureaucracy in the process. In the case of libraries, though, the old system worked fairly well and in their favour. The library committee was a rather nice committee for a councillor to be on; there was usually a Chief/County/City/Town Librarian with senior status who could develop a relationship with this committee, in particular with its chair. Once that was swept away, the close relationship was lost: there was no obvious portfolio holder who could give libraries so much attention (as they now became part of a much bigger set of services); with that went the loss of status and influence for the senior librarian, and, I would guess, this often led eventually to having fewer senior posts and the downgrading of remaining ones. Ultimately this led to a situation in which there were few influential voices to be heard in support of libraries at a senior level in the council, whether from elected members or from officers.

Cardiff's current difficulties arise partly from this by now historic shift, I believe. I am not singling Cardiff out in particular to suggest that it is any worse than others, only because I know a little of its recent history. The question which was never satisfactorily resolved at Cardiff was, where, in the now limited number of "cabinet portfolios", should libraries be? Other councils have had their own answers to this, and they are not without their problems either. One fairly common solution is to place them with leisure services. In the current climate, this might mean that the whole library service is to be outsourced along with the rest of leisure services (as proposed in Hull, and discussed by Alan Wylie here). Elsewhere, they might be in an education department, which some may think fits the libraries' purpose better, but can be difficult financially (and in terms of getting the relevant councillor's attention, and competing for resources with schools). If the council has a museum or an archive service it might belong with those in a "cultural" portfolio (not an option for Cardiff, whose museum became the National Museum of Wales long ago, and whose archives are part of the historic county's inheritance). Cardiff has in fact been in what seems like a never-ending state of reorganisation ever since coming into existence in 1996, and libraries have been passed round like a hot potato from one place to another. There was a brief pause of a year or so after 1996, and then the "pass-the-parcel" game began, with layers being peeled off each time the music stopped. In the last fifteen years libraries have been in at least five different parts of the structure, starting with education, then leisure, and then various combinations of other things, some of which overlapped while most did not. At the moment the cabinet member responsible for them holds the portfolio for "Community, Development, Co-operatives and Social Enterprise", with an assistant cabinet member for "Young People & Learning (including Libraries)". This all sounds quite woolly and difficult to get a handle on from outside the structure. There has not been a "Chief Librarian", as such, for over ten years: whatever else reorganisation does, it doesn't bring clarity in terms of job titles which can be easily understood by the general public.

Whichever department libraries were moved to, the senior non-library staff seemed to have in common:

1. No previous knowledge of or interest in libraries

2. No idea - often literally not a clue until told - that libraries are a statutory service protected by an Act of Parliament, which states among other things that the basic service has to be provided free of charge (an unwelcome shock to some!)

3. A desire to make libraries be more like whatever else was in the portfolio

4. A desire to make libraries serve the other part of their portfolio to the exclusion of other things (again, something which is incompatible with the Act, which states the local authorities must provide a "comprehensive" service)

5. Co-locating libraries with whatever else was in their portfolio

The combined effect of all of this has been to leave libraries vulnerable to every organisational change, to have no long-term planning (because who knows whose portfolio they might be in next time?), no overall vision for libraries, certainly no succession planning. Overall decisions are made from outside the profession, according to the agenda of other services (but not necessarily the same ones from one year to another). The loss of status of the professional library staff, leaving a very few trying to implement policies which are not library-led, also weakens a service overall. Again, I am not particularly singling Cardiff out: I think the problems are common to many other places.

Libraries have not been served well by the fragmentation of responsibility which has happened due to constant reorganisation, lost in having to compete for attention and resources with bigger and more vocal services (and, in the case of Cardiff, frequent changes of alignment). Small sometimes really is best!

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