Wednesday, 2 February 2011

"Libraries are more than just a book lending service": #libnews digest number 4

This week I'm changing focus slightly to look at a few political angles of the library cuts. One reason being that other aspects of library news are being very well covered in other forums and also I just find this stuff quite interesting...

Is this a political issue? Kate Mosse was quoted by the BBC as saying that the situation is not party political because Labour councils are also implementing harsh cuts to services. I admire Kate Mosse's support of libraries but I'm not sure I agree (I'll be interested to look at the data a bit closer and see if there are differences in the way that local authorities are handling library cuts). I'd argue that the situation is party political in that cuts at local level are as a result of the way that the Government has decided to address the current economic situation. And there is an issue here that goes to the heart of our democracy i.e. that nobody voted for this Government or the level of cuts to public services that are being implemented. This kind of post leads me to believe that this is a very political issue (resisting the urge to make rude comments about Telegraph readers at this point!).

The lack of understanding about "what libraries do" is sadly symptomatic of some quarters (see Keith Mitchell's letter). The argument that libraries are not as important as child protection or services for older people (what we could term "social care") is fairly prevalent. This article in The New Statesman cites Marx (Groucho rather than Karl) and argues that the "life of the mind" is important in its own right - but I'd say libraries are important for reasons way beyond this. I liked this article because it recognises that libraries are "more than just book-lending services".

Libraries provide a community hub where marginalised groups can build social capital. Library staff know their users. They look out for the older people that use the library and, increasingly libraries are places where all ages access local services. Children's librarians do amazing work with vulnerable groups to engage them with the library, providing alternatives to some of the outcomes they might otherwise face. When you consider this, Alan Bennett's statement that "closing libraries is child abuse" does not seem such an exaggeration. Arguing that libraries can be cut because they are not essential services, fails to understand what libraries do and the impact that their closure could have on social care and communities. Especially as some authorities are proposing to charge for services. I'm pretty sure the 1964 act intended a "comprehensive and efficient" library service for all - not just those lucky enough to be able to afford it. For this reason, another area of the data I want to look at further is indexes of deprivation in areas where cuts are proposed.

Along similar lines it seems that user needs are not playing much of a role in deciding which libraries get cut. This article for example, raises some clear concerns about the criteria that are being looked at in Cambridgeshire with regards to cutting branches. There are similar questions in Buckinghamshire about how rural branches are more likely to be cut. Dorset have stated that e-books can be used to plug the gap left by closing libraries in rural communities. I'm all for ebooks but I'm also a strong believer that you need to back up ebook collections with user support. I mean that both in terms of having people to show users how to use them and providing an environment where they can be used. I don't think that ebooks mean you can do without libraries as places or knowledgable library staff. Are the rural population of Dorset all online or is there a chance they may need to access ebooks via publicly accessible computers? I don't know, so another thing I'll be looking at over the next few weeks is measures of access to IT in areas where cuts are proposed.

Just one last point. If anyone is in any doubt about how important information is to a democratic and just society. Maybe have a think about how the Egyptian government reacted to protest?

Think on!

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