"The Big Society" - killing a library near you?
Whether you believe in David Cameron’s “Big Society” or not, the promotion of this initiative has had some puzzling side effects. Take Gloucestershire for example. An attempt to launch a review of the council’s plans to cut the service has been rejected by the council’s overview and scrutiny management committee (which, like the council, is Conservative run). The council’s plans are based on funding reductions of around 25 per cent by 2014. The cuts by the council could lead to Gloucestershire’s library service being cut in half. But here’s the weird thing, Gloucestershire are also promising £50,000 per district for ‘Big Society’ projects. With around 16 districts in the county, that makes a grand total of £800,000 in cash set aside. £800,000 that could, of course, be better invested in the library service. But it’s not just Gloucestershire that is pulling money out of libraries to invest in the ‘Big Society’.
Oxfordshire and Kent have both also recently announced that they will be putting money aside for ‘Big Society’ projects. Oxfordshire are keeping £600,000 back and are intending to close around 20 out of 43 libraries. But most mind-blowing of all are Kent. Although no closures have been announced (yet), they are keeping back an astonishing £5 million for the ‘Big Society’. One hopes they don’t announce any closures after the impending consultation. If so, one wonders why they were unable to reduce the fund to £3-4 million without affecting the library service in the county.
So is it really the case that the ‘Big Society’ project is the cause of these closures? It is hard not to come to that conclusion when you see the money that is being held back. Scrap the ‘Big Society’ initiative and suddenly library services can be kept fully operational (most councils are already protecting what they see as ‘essential services’ so these budgets are not under threat to the same extent as libraries). It seems that the answer is obvious, instead of focusing on possible savings that the service could make (which is debatable anyway), campaigners should be asking their council why they are withholding money that could be used to ensure that their library service is not subject to disproportionate cuts. The cause of the cuts to library services is not the cut in government funding, it is an eagerness to experiment with the ‘Big Society’. It is a sad irony that, given the role that libraries play in communities, it is the ‘Big Society’ which is killing libraries.
For some time now there has been a discussion about whether public libraries should offer ebooks or not. As more and more services offer them to their users, the answer appears to be ‘yes’. Yet there seems to be some resistance to their introduction – particularly by library campaigners, which seems very curious to me. A recent post on the Good Library Blog was particularly intriguing. Despite often being told by library campaigners that librarians do not ‘listen to the needs of their users’, when librarians do try to meet the needs of their users by introducing a service that many users have requested, they are politely told to ignore them. I’m not really sure why this double-standard should apply. Either we meet the needs of our users or we do not. We can’t say that on the one hand we should meet their needs and listen to their requests whilst also deciding that we know best. It is rather bizarre that it is acceptable for library campaigners to ignore users, whilst librarians are lambasted for it.
What makes this position all the more curious is that the needs of the private sector should apparently be taken into consideration:
Nor is anyone hearing the voice of Booksellers – who just plain don’t want public libraries to offer for nothing that out of which they try to make their living.
This is a very strange position. Why should we concern ourselves with that? Our primary concern should be meeting the needs of our users, not fear of upsetting the private sector. Besides, don’t public libraries already offer books for nothing – from which booksellers try to make their living? There are a number of other points that are made that display a fundamental lack of knowledge of the technology. This is of very great concern. Librarians are involved in the discussions about ebooks, they understand the developments and what they mean for the service. Consequently, it seems daft to me that non-librarians who do not understand the technology should be trying to drive policy in this area. I’m all for ‘outsiders’ getting involved in defending the library service, but they should know their limitations and, where these limitations are apparent, work with professionals who do understand developments. To do otherwise could damage the service beyond redemption – something neither party desires (one would hope).
Anyway, for me the answer is clear: now is most definitely the time. With access of library websites growing at a fast rate (50% year on year increase last year), there is a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of the new ways people are interacting with the service. If people are logging onto the library catalogue to use online resources, renew books and make reservations, why not offer them texts that they can download there and then? The growth of website access presents a tremendous opportunity for libraries. An opportunity to expand digital collections and provide new services for users. Librarians are prepared to rise to the challenge (many libraries already have) and meet the changing needs of their users. The question is, are the library campaigners? Or do they simply want libraries to reflect solely what they think is best? One hopes it is the former.