Wednesday, 15 July 2009

How local is local? Why the Wirral Inquiry matters Yesterday and today I put in a couple of appearances at the biennial conference of CILIP (the organisation formerly known, more sensibly, as the Library Association). There are two handy little contrasts which have sustained my interest in public libraries from the community development perspective over the years. One is the old nicety that a library is a resource that is 'based in the community but not community-based'. Personally I'm fine with that - local people don't have to have direct ownership over all their resources and services, that would not make sense (what would community-based road planning look like?). And I don't regard central policies aimed at pumping community engagement values into the public library sector as any kind of attempt to 'get round' this. The second, which I covered in a short talk yesterday, is the reflection that community development depends on an anti-professional ethos, which needs defending; whereas librarianship (in the UK at least) appears to struggle with an over-professional ethos, which needs examining. What I was arguing for was more attention to the values that might underpin public library work, and less preoccupation with status. It happens that I've been asked to prepare a policy statement on community development for CILIP, so I took the opportunity to catch up with the CEO Bob McKee who I knew, from his work in Solihull in the 1990s, as someone who genuinely understands and believes in CD. Bob reminded me of the Wirral Inquiry: following heavily-criticised announcements of local library closures by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, the Inquiry will report soon to the Secretary of State on "whether the Council's plans are consistent with their statutory duty to provide a 'comprehensive and efficient' library service." Bob's blog post from the Inquiry helps explain why this is such an important case. It's not just about belated attempts to define 'comprehensive and efficient'. The process opens up much-needed discussion about localness as part of that definition. To be sure, we could have fewer small local libraries and depend on more large central collections. The national health service went through this kind of transformation, building huge hospitals, and had to invent health centres to compensate. The economic argument is doubtless persuasive in its own terms and for many people the trade-off is not problematic. But it would mean saying goodbye to pretensions of being a local community resource, and it would undoubtedly privilege the privileged while punishing the less well-off. Accessibility is the key. If people have to take an awkward bus-ride or cross a busy road and walk a couple of miles to reach a larger library, there are all sorts of reasons why they might not. One is the sense of belonging and the lost association of a familiar resource with their neighbourhood. The MORI report that I blogged yesterday says that 'A sense of belonging and personal connections are vitally important to satisfaction with areas', so you'd expect this to be recognised by the officers and councillors of the...

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