For three years now whatever is regarded as public has been under sustained, unambiguous attack by the present government under the guise of ‘necessary’ public sector spending cuts. Deliberate inaction in defence of the public library network, by the minister with responsibility for them, is in my view manifestly strategic. I am not likely to forget having been at the pre-election launch of the big society three years ago, when we were told that
‘Neighbourhoods will be able to bid to take over the running of community amenities, such as parks and libraries that are under threat.'
The ‘threat’ had yet to be articulated but the clear message was that if people really wanted their public amenities, they would demonstrate this in practical ways by showing a readiness to manage them unpaid: and if not, those resources, tainted by the ideology of being collectively owned, would be allowed to wither.
Some still haven’t seen the plainness of this particular writing on walls all round the country. Many people seem ready to blame their local council for the circumstances they find their libraries in, but it’s just too much intellectual effort to work out why those councils – and the economy - are in the state they’re in. Of those who recognise that the problem goes beyond local government, most seem to have signed up to the myth of excessive Labour spending (even though there is 'no evidence that increases in social policy spending caused a crisis in the public finances preceding the global financial crisis and recession’ - Lupton et al, 2013); the rhetoric of shirkers and scroungers; and the narrative of public sector profligacy and incompetence. All of which serves both to deny the culpability of the financial sector and to smokescreen the systematic dismantlement of things that are public.
And while we watch people in Greece, Brasil, Egypt and elsewhere express their anger against exploitation and manipulation by the Haves, in this country we go all quivery-mousy and get on with nibbling our own tails.
The sheltered, lethargic indifference and lack of political awareness seemed to have its dull echo at the CILIP debate last week, reinforced by the fact that those who work for local authorities are unable to express criticism of their employers’ policies. The tone of passive acquiescence in the room was largely about acknowledging the apparent inevitability of the current transformation of the library network into a mix of different, experimental forms of governance and day-to-day maintenance; but it also smacked of political naivety in a very English sense.
The speakers and I will be working on a short document based on the session, and I’ll make a little announcement on this blog when the time comes. In the meantime, I thought I’d just set down one of the points I made in my introductory remarks.
Several years ago, Martin Dudley and I published a short study on public libraries and community cohesion for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. It included (p15) a framework of four essential attributes of public libraries:
- Library as resource
- Librarians as expertise
- Library as place
- Library as symbol of the public realm.
We claim no special credit for this model: it drew on the work of others before and around us, but it’s handy to have and to refer to.
More recently, the Arts Council (which has taken over the responsibility for libraries from the MLA, but with what looks like a stronger political steer from the government strategists) published the much-publicised The library of the future. The paper refers to the following three essential ingredients that ‘define the public library’:
- a safe, creative community space that is enjoyable and easy to use, in both physical and virtual form
- an excellent range of quality books, digital resources and other content
- well-trained, friendly people to help users to find what they want either independently or with support.
These will be recognisable from the list that Martin and I settled on, but there’s one missing. What happened to publicness? How is it that ‘being public’ is no longer an essential, defining characteristic of public libraries?
I can’t help wondering if the notion might just be politically inconvenient and inexpedient, perhaps? And its omission from that document and its elision in more general debate amounts to collusion in the destructive anti-public policies of the present government. Does anyone have a better explanation?