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Friday, 6 December 2013

Arts, Libraries and Library Campaigners

Public Libraries News has a rather negative take on North Yorkshire's success in getting grant money for artists in residence in their libraries.  The criticism is echoed by various other campaigners.  I think this is a very misguided approach.

Firstly, I don't agree with the view that the arts are a kind of nice add on that can be dispensed with when budgets tighten (Let us leave to one side whether budgets actually need to tighten or whether the whole eternal austerity agenda is just ideological).  If you want to have arts activity at all, you need to sustain it.  It cannot simply be switched on and off like an electric light.  There needs to be a physical infrastructure and a skills base.  If you do away with this base, it is enormously difficult to build it back up again;  what I believe economists call hysteresis

Secondly, the arts are a significant contributor to society as a whole.  You can argue for this in economic terms, as I have with regard to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, the new Library Centre in Willesden, and the Civic Centre in Wembley.  In each case, the arts events help draw people towards those Town Centres and get people spending on local businesses.

There are much wider social benefits as well.  I think for instance of all the work that the Tricycle does with drama workshops.  Some of these artists in residence may well contribute to the core business of libraries of promoting reading as Brent's poet laureate did. 

Another possibility is that the artists in residence or other arts events help to attract audiences who perhaps have old fashioned views of libraries.  Brent's artist in residence at Kilburn Library spent a significant amount of effort trying to reach out to people in South Kilburn. The ability to attract new users is certainly characteristic of Brent Dance Month, that brings many people into libraries who are not normally library users. 

Above all, this kind of stuff is fun, and people do need some fun in libraries even (or perhaps especially) when the outlook for libraries and local government is so very bleak. 

1 comment:

Leon Bolton said...

You are absolutely right to point out the cultural contribution of the arts, and the value they play towards both the local and national economy. The same can obviously be said for libraries as well.

Libraries have a long history of working with the arts to the benefit of their local communities and such partnering is nothing new. However, the controversy surrounding the North Yorkshire scheme is not the use of artists in libraries but the statement by ACE to change ‘…both the public and government perception of libraries and developing them as cultural hubs and creative spaces’ as the ‘…keys to the future sustainability of libraries’

It is the approach taken by ACE towards libraries that I disagree with not the overall value of the arts themselves. As a professional librarian I challenge the assumption of libraries as merely a strand of art provision when in fact the arts are but one strand of partnership working and activity that libraries undertake. There is a subtle but very important difference here.

Recently the Society of Chief Librarians expressed its concern, pointing out that the important work of supporting IT literacy, community health, and generating economic prosperity, which are all part of the SCL Universal Offers, was not reflected in the updated ACE strategy.

I would argue that it is the universal offers that better reflect the core activities of libraries and are certainly more in keeping with the majority of local authorities’ priorities. It is a great pity that ACE have not seen fit to work in partnership with the SCL to adopt and promote the offers as the real key to the future sustainability of libraries.

Supporting the arts and supporting the universal offers are not mutually exclusive but in times of limited and dwindling funding I know where I would choose to concentrate my resources. This is not just a preference but good business sense.

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