Helen Milner of the Tinder Foundation has rather bravely suggested that public libraries have to move on from the "never close a library position". For that she deserves praise, and she gets a balanced review from Public Libraries News which first alerted me to her post. It is striking how the public libraries debate has never moved beyond demands that Building X should never close, or it sometimes feels, even change.
Helen sees another side of things, where must be acutely aware of the need for a large part of the population to engage digitally. Failure to do so risks greater social division and lack of opportunity as both public and private organisations are increasingly organised around digital technology.
Libraries can play a huge role in meeting these needs, but too often seem to get bogged down in autobiographical arguments about some celebrities' childhood.
Brent's Libraries Transformation Project was a serious attempt to tackle these issues at a local level, and one that was markedly successful.
Why Aren't Local Authority Libraries Better?
Why don't more authorities do this if it is so important? I suspect that is down to a combination of failing to understand how modern libraries can feed into a digital agenda; the fierce resistance of a vocal minority and sheer lack of ambition.
The first of these is summed by those celebrities. Time and again, I have read articles and interviews that speak nostalgically about childhood in a public library but seem to have no awareness of how libraries can be used to broaden peoples' access to knowledge, which was their original Victorian purpose. One can also read a minority of articles arguing libraries are redundant. Again, this is based on the assumption that they have no capacity for change. Essentially, one has to get across the argument that the modern version of the traditional mission of encouraging people to read (and write) now includes reading and writing digitally. That means making modern IT and forms of social media less frightening for many people, making other people more aware of technology's limitations as well as possibilities and also how to navigate online in what can be quite basic ways. That is a really big, bold mission which public libraries are uniquely placed to perform and it is not widely realised.
The second strand here that is actually becoming an obstacle here is the vocal campaigns that always seem to be framed in terms of the status quo. Helen Milner is right to try to say the starting point should be what are the strategic aims of a library service and how might it achieve them. I would not quite start with a blank piece of paper as she suggests, but an awareness of how society has changed since the libraries were built might be useful. That means where the population is, how people get around, what they expect of services, how they access what they need and all sorts of other things.
That kind of analysis seems to get blanked out by two other things. One is a kind of "just say No" approach. In Brent, we saw campaign groups shouting (often literally) that there must be no change of any kind. That is actually an oddly authoritarian position. It assumes that whoever made decisions in the past chose not just the best distribution of resources for that moment but also for all time. In a case like Brent, where some groups have devoted huge energy to denouncing public libraries as a total disaster, I think some people find themselves psychologically unable to accept any evidence of success, including the opinions of people who actually use libraries. That seems a great pity, coming from people whose very desire to defend libraries has led them where they are now.
The second area which I think has really played into the decline of the libraries is the idea of volunteers keeping a library open. This is in many ways an easier option for councillors. Compared to the rows Brent went through, you can see that keeping a building "open" for shorter hours, but with not much in them is a hell of a lot easier than going through the difficulty of actually reforming a public service with most of the pain immediate but the benefits years down the line, and perhaps invisible even then. Just quiet piecemeal cutting makes for a much quieter life, and with many councillors under so many other pressures, and often failing to understand the potential of libraries to change the lives of people they represent for the better, you can see why they opt for the quiet life.
Which brings me to the final point. Local authorities, battered by cuts, are losing the ambition to really shape their areas for the better. This is true not just of libraries but in general. Ambitious schemes seem pie in the sky when you struggle to keep your head above water, but sometimes ambitious schemes are the only way to keep your head above water. Clinging to the safe and reliable as the tide wash over you may be more likely to lead to drowning than a difficult scramble up a cliff.