Guest post #12 – 2022: A tale of two libraries? by Hannah Bailey

Decisions being taken now will have a huge impact on the library service of 2022. Our tale of two libraries exposes the huge dangers that we want councils to be aware of when they make their challenging decisions on library funding in the coming months.

One council, let’s call it council A, took the time to understand its library service, and the huge role that is played in the local community. A cabinet member who used the service realised that over the years it had been neglected. The council surveyed local people, spent time understanding who used the libraries most, why certain groups wouldn’t, and what would get people coming through the doors. They boosted online access as demand for it increased through the recession. To plough money back into books and better services the council invested in green energy, installing solar panels on the roofs of several library buildings in the borough. The council also took the difficult decision to close one branch library. In an old building that was not fit for purpose, the aim was to rationalise provision and ensure the remaining libraries were sustainable into the future. Initially it wasn’t a popular decision, but the council were careful to ensure that staff, the UNISON branch and users were all involved in planning the closure. An equality impact assessment was completed which looked at the impact closure would have on the local community. Steps were taken to minimise this, through the transfer of services to the nearest library and advertisement of the changes to users and the community.

Not far away, council B struggled when libraries became a hot topic in the local elections. The leader of the council made promises he could not keep and pledged not to close any down.  After the elections, the council put the library service out to tender, certain that this would keep costs low and quality high. An intense bidding war ensued, with private companies each vying to show how they could deliver a cheaper service. The council went with the lowest bidder, a large private company. After signing the contract, the company ran a short online consultation, targeted at non-users of the service. As a result, cafes were installed in all libraries, reducing the amount of shelf-space but turning a profit for the company. Thinking the future must be digital, the company cut back on book stock. Looking at the budget, all this expenditure had to be balanced elsewhere. The solution was to cut back on staff and bring in volunteers.

Cast forward to 2022, what did each service look like? In the first authority, library usage went up due to the effects of the recession and the councils efforts to engage with the local community which brought about service improvements. As children’s centres closed, rhymetime sessions grew in popularity. Book groups for older people benefited from a programme of outreach with isolated individuals in the community, especially as many traditional lunch clubs had also been closed down. And partnership working with a number of high schools meant that young people’s library use went up, as the library became known as a safe space where school children could meet to do homework and social networking.

Council B’s fifteen year contract with a private company proved hugely problematic. Although no libraries had closed, councillors received numerous complaints from life-long users that the service no longer met their needs. Once charging was introduced, visitor numbers started a sharp decline. Remaining staff became disillusioned with the service, with many leaving, replaced by lower paid and untrained staff. Many were not replaced at all. The goodwill of volunteers was stretched to breaking point with many responsible for opening and closing the building, as well as being expected to cover staff-shortages in the café. Councillors felt powerless to intervene to ask for improvements, finding the contract had been hastily drawn up and was poorly monitored. The company continued to make a profit from the café however, with many visitors unaware that they were visiting the library at all.

Come 2022, think of your local community and what you want to see in it? The first scenario is far from impossible, it just takes time, commitment and the political will to listen to the many people from all walks of life that use libraries, and the dedicated staff who keep them running. Our public library service has opened so many doors in the last 100 years. UNISON is committed to keeping the service public for the next 100 and beyond.

Hannah Bailey is Assistant National Officer for the Local Government, Police and Justice Section at UNISON, the public service trade union
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4 Responses to Guest post #12 – 2022: A tale of two libraries? by Hannah Bailey

  1. Alan Wylie says:

    Excellent piece Hannah, well done! By far the most realistic and practical vision i’ve read, unfortunately the vast majority of councils in the UK fall into category B! If only they (MLA, SCL, ALCL, ACE, DCMS et al) had listened to staff, users and campaigners a way forward could have been found years ago but there’s a hidden, or not so hidden, agenda, the neo-liberal one! Commercialise and diversify public libraries in order to position them within the leisure market, making it easier to renage on statutory requirements and more attractive to private companies, call users ‘customers’, re-brand libraries as ‘Idea Stores’ and ‘Discovery Centres’, call library assistants ‘customer service assistants’, introduce self-service and ‘floor walking’, introduce retail models into library design and recruit staff from the retail and marketing sectors! This agenda has been disastrous for public libraries and linked with austerity cuts, bad management and a total lack of leadership has brought us to our knees!

  2. Pingback: Envisioning the library of the future | Alan Gibbons’ Blog

  3. Hazel Robinson says:

    Yes, how could I disagree with such sense? However, it doesn’t help much NOW. The ‘hidden agenda’ with Dorset County Council was the need to reduce the property portfolio. Friends of Dorset Libraries (Ad Lib) suspect that very little, if any, funds will be saved on the actual closure or handing over to volunteers of library services. Savings will be made on handing over leases and even freeholds of the buildings to Town Councils and Friends’ groups. In the meanwhile, as usual, officers have made sure their own jobs are secure, huge sums are spent on consultants ….I could go on.

    In these new volunteer-run and funded libraries, we have no choice. We have to make them commercial enterprises in one way or another. How else can we pay the bills? No community library in Dorset intends to charge for borrowing books but we shall have to have cafes, retail enterprises and everlasting fund-raising activities. All of this is done reluctantly. We would prefer to have professionally-run and publicly-funded libraries.

    There could have been a compromise situation if anyone had been prepared to listen. Friends and Town Councils could have taken on responsibility for the buildings and offered volunteer time to augment opening hours – and even provide some cafe-style facilities – while still retaining that all-important professional staffing. The savings made would probably have been greater than those being made under the future arrangements which leave our futures doubtful.

    • alan wylie says:

      Hazel – so called ‘community libraries’ are a completely different ball game, there are so many different models throughout the country, but the overall trend is for councils to try and position them away from their statutory remit and as you will be aware this leads to a free for all that ultimately fragments and undermines the service and its ethos! It also raises big concerns about data protection, equalities/representation, professionalism, censorship and stock selection and sustainability! Communities have had guns put to their heads and have responded in the way they think best, i can understand this but as a librarian you’ll understand why i don’t support it!

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