I promised regular followers a short break from our extended look at libraries in novels but of course that left me with the tricky question of how will to fill this previously unplanned breakout sessions and then of course as so often serendipity lends a helping hand. I had to pause though because to follow where serendipity beckoned risked getting involved in things way above my pay grade since I retired and stepping into debates that far more clever and dedicated activists than I will ever be have been pursuing for a long time. In the end though I decided if we were going to have a break from my usual attempts at witty and entertaining content I might as well do it properly and talk about something a bit more serious so I decided to continue.
I follow, as some of you may do, a few of the blogs doing their very best to protect and promote what is left of the UK library service after sustained government onslaught and the loss of something like 400 libraries and so I needed serendipity’s helping hand to pinch me very hard when I read that our Prime Minister has written to his local council to complain about their plans to shut, amongst other things, libraries. Yes this is the same Prime Minister who is committed to cutting spending on public services back to levels last seen under Alfred the Great. You see you are pinching yourself now aren’t you! The PM has clearly been too preoccupied with higher order affairs of state to realise that when you cut spending on public services, public services get cut. He should get that Chancellor chap to explain economics to him. Instead Mr Cameron spouts the usual mantra about cutting back-office functions not services forgetting again that this is what governments have been saying for several decades now and the only back office function left is an answerphone constantly ringing in an empty room because all the librarians have been sacked and replaced with well-meaning but poorly prepared retired civil servants and bank clerks who will run libraries as volunteers from a lock up garage using books bought cheaply from Oxfam because there is no money for anything else.
This it seems is what passes for national library policy today in pursuit of the statutory requirement to provide a comprehensive library service. No wonder Mr Cameron is so unhappy for his constituents. What will happen to all the sharp elbowed ladies determined to be first to the latest Nora Roberts, the sleep deprived mums hoping that half an hour with the Gruffalo and a few Duplo bricks will give her a chance of a nap whilst awaking a life of books for their child, the job clubs helping hopeless job seekers re-write their CV for the tenth time knowing it is pointless because there aren’t any jobs, the local history researchers keeping the past alive and the shy young lad who just comes into chat to the young librarian despite being fully aware that she is way out of his league.
But it’s all going to be all right because whilst catching up with some of those various blogs that I follow I noticed that we have a latest report on the future of libraries. The Seighart Report was produced at the request of the Minister, whose name I can’t be bothered to recall but who has libraries somewhere down in the small print of his brief, to make recommendations on the future for libraries in the England. All of which sounds encouraging apart from the small point that the report has been with the government since last December and no one seems to actually have read it yet and the other small matter that the report seems to have been commissioned in complete ignorance of another report published a year earlier. Now I can sympathise because these reports can get confusing for busy ministers struggling to recall which report was about what and he may easily have missed the subtle clue in the title of the previous report as it was called confusingly The Future for Libraries.
The report The Future for Libraries was commissioned by The Arts Council so you may have missed it (yes me too.) They produced the report when they took over national responsibility for libraries from the previous national body in which libraries museums and archives were lumped together by the government under a single organisation that was totally ineffective because the government had given it an impossibly wide brief and they in turn had taken over responsibility for libraries from the previous national library body because it had been so ineffective because they didn’t have a brief at all; are you spotting a theme here. Still we shall see what the latest report brings but don’t hold your breath because what startling new plan does the latest report have amongst its recommendations after 2 years of consultation with all the relevant stakeholders. It recommends….a Taskforce. That’s taskforce spelt kick-into-the-long-grass-until–all-the-libraries-are gone. You know it isn’t going anywhere when the report starts with the sentence The public library service in England is at a crossroads because that is a completely inappropriate analogy. Library policy is not at a crossroads it’s stuck on one of those roundabouts, like the ones near Swindon where you have no idea in which direction you need to go so you just keep going round and round and round. Another more apt analogy for the policy makers might be a goldfish circling its bowl with a constantly astonished expression amazed at that it sees despite the fact that it saw the same thing only a few minutes ago; constantly opening its mouth but without any actual sound emerging whilst back in the real world the librarians and their colleagues get on with doing their best to run what is left of our libraries.
So if that is the best we can do to secure the future for libraries I would like to refer our policy makers to two other models for libraries, one from abroad and one from nearer to home that they might like to add to their deliberations.
The wonderful Lucy Mangan of The Guardian and a self-confessed, passionate book and library lover offered her own response following a previous and now long forgotten government report on public libraries in 2010, a report calling for “new governance models” for public libraries (you see what I mean about a roundabout). Lucy offered an intimate proposal for revitalising her local library offering to set up the library in her own home. Membership would be available to applicants who “provide proof of a recent Saturday Guardian purchase, a picture of a kitten and a (real) Tunnock’s teacake”, and in a welcome simplification of all those tiresome library rules she proposes just three
“1) Silence is to be maintained at all times. For younger patrons, “silence” is an ancient tradition, dating from pre-digital times. It means “the absence of sound”. Sound includes talking.
2) I will provide tea and coffee at cost price, the descriptive terms for which will be limited to “black”, “white”, “no/one/two/three sugars” and “cup”. Anyone who asks for a latte, cappuccino or herbal anything will be taken outside and killed. Silently.
3) Opening hours are noon to midnight. I’m not a morning person.
It is certainly more positive than some vague proposals for an ill-defined Taskforce and might even offer a solution for those areas of the country including my own county where there are unsurprisingly not enough well-meaning volunteers to run the former library but the shops still stock Tunnock’s Teacakes.
Hope for a brighter future and a demonstration that in practice librarians are way ahead of the ill-informed thinking of politicians comes from Sweden and I am grateful to Graham a former colleague and regular reader who sent me details of a fascinating experiment in Gothenburg. Unlike our own country where bus services are disappearing almost as fast as libraries Volvo joined forces with Gothenburg City Library to demonstrate the advantages of their electric, emission-free buses by creating a temporary indoor bus stop which is designed like a library, to emphasise how quiet it is and from which visitors will be able to borrow books and tablets from librarians or sit and read or listen to audio-books just like a real library in fact. The City Libraries enthusiastically embraced the idea because they could see the advantage of such a development for improving access and the only possible grounds for confusion I can see would be asking the bus driver for two returns and she takes your books off you and puts them back on the shelves!
But don’t expect anything as radical as this to turn up in the UK anytime soon. Not just because our transport companies are notoriously investment phobic but because when they do eventually get round to investing in silent emission-less buses there won’t be any libraries left open to drive buses into. Not only that but there is but there is just a possibility that, following the lead of several villages recently of creating libraries in old red ‘phone boxes, some underage, underemployed adviser to the Minister for Whichever Department is Responsible for Libraries This Week will read about Gothenburg and come up with the brilliant and idea of putting all the books from the now closed libraries in bus shelters and calling that a comprehensive library service.
I‘m going to stop now because my blog was as you know intended to be entertaining and diverting and give us all a break from the tawdry reality of government policies but regular listeners to my radio show will know that I do occasionally get carried away and go off on what turns into a bit of a rant just as I have here, rather than sticking to the informative narrative that the show usual features. So I will return in the next post to the safety of finding amusement in the curious cameos that libraries and librarians play in popular culture, looking at some other novels from Lindsey Davis, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin amongst several more and leave all this politics stuff, as I said to the many admirable library campaign blogs that cover this subject far more effectively and certainly more professionally than I have managed to do here. For those who don’t read or are not interested in all these books we shall also have in the near future posts about fantasy librarians, librarians in film and on TV and even librarians in songs.