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Libraries…redux January 15, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Culture, Economy, The Left.

This is an amazing period of history, amazing – though – in the most negative sense of that word. I read this on the Guardian a short while back and thought it was perhaps hyperbole, a piece by Patrick Wintour which argued that ‘George Osborne is engineering a seismic change in the role of the state’. Wintour notes that Osborne has now jettisoned claims of future, or immanent, prosperity, in favour of a TINA line, one where state expenditures on welfare are slashed yet further (though, as Wintour notes, tellingly, not expenditures on pensions – I don’t mention that in order to get into a sterile argument about intergenerational equity, but simply to observe that there is an hierarchy of expenditures in Osborne’s mind, or more likely, an expedient analysis as to what the public will bear in terms of cuts).

So Osborne is not just admitting that the state is going to have be permanently smaller. He is engineering a fundamental change in what it does. By ringfencing spending on aid, pensions, health and schools, as well as some military spending – nearly £100bn of state spending is now protected – he is putting an extraordinary squeeze on what remains. The money being extracted from the remaining mainstream public services – local government, policing, business support and environment – will leave them unrecognisable.

Now, I in my innocence, thought that last was probably a stretch, but not at all for news comes of another ‘initiative’ by the Tories, this in relation to the area of libraries. Catherine Bennett in the Observer at the weekend notes the following.

Describing it only as “very impressive”, the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, has been too modest about a recorded explosion in the number of volunteer librarians, up 44% last year, from 23,400 to 33,000. Admittedly, a simultaneous 7% fall in the number of full-time librarians might look like a slender pretext for national jubilation. Yet this massive saving in our libraries is not merely a victory over Big Society sceptics, but evidence that Vaizey is achieving the unprecedented and seemingly miraculous: the delivery, for virtually nothing, of a treasured public service.

Bennett is, of course, being ironic. And yet. The idea of ‘volunteer librarians’ is one that even five years ago would have been near enough absurd. And so here we have a situation where the state is retreating from provision of library services and instead of replacing trained and qualified individuals is instead willing to hand over the process to untrained volunteers.

This is dressed up in the language of the ‘Big Society’.

As Bennett notes:

At this stage it remains mysterious by what curious arts the notoriously reclusive library hater, Vaizey, discovered that hundreds of Britain’s public libraries could be harmlessly transferred to amateurs, and whether there are any basic standards or other criteria to which these random operations should conform. But the minister has done some personal research. “All the volunteers I come across say they are running their libraries far more cheaply than the local authority was doing it,” was his response to the above volunteer figures, in which some diagnosed a certain disregard for reading, to say nothing of professional sensitivities. If only for a quiet life, Vaizey might want, before opening his mouth in future, mentally to substitute the word “Romanian” for “volunteer”.
As it is, so far from regretting the rapidly falling number of already low-paid full-time staff, Vaizey anticipates a day when the free community model is actively preferred, not only as a euphemism for eventual closure. He told a newspaper: “We would at least do the work for them in terms of sourcing the equipment – we can provide them potentially with access to our book stock.”

And this is only the start.

Potentially there could still be difficulties with entirely untrained librarians with no understanding of the books over which they might (stock permitting) preside, but this objection, too, Vaizey has anticipated. “We can provide them with training, and a lot of these community groups would happily pay for them if they were raising money.”

We’re now seeing the social democratic compact unravelling before our very eyes. Libraries are engines of progress, vital resources that are needed at times like this – in periods of high unemployment, low job security and so no, more than ever. And it is depressing and worse to see this occurring.

There was a comment on CIF a while back which I think encapsulated what this process is envisaged as leading to. One where – and this is openly discussed in sections of the Tory party, the state will retreat to a US position (or worse) with a thin and cosmetic layer of health care provision, some nod to state education and so on. Add to that the rolling back of labour legislation and protections in the workplace, and the essential removal of safety nets.

Naturally to reach that point will take quite some time. There’s a lot of state left. But when one sees what is happening to libraries…


1. OUH - January 15, 2014
2. EamonnCork - January 15, 2014

The comments under that Guardian piece are thoroughly dispiriting, like something you’d read under a Sindo piece about teachers. It’s notable these days that the lack of respect for what would once have been regarded as decent jobs is often mirrored by the awe shown towards jobs, Rebranding Manager, Synergistic Development Consultant, which don’t seem to do any good at all.
Hence you get a situation where a government committed to hacking away at the pay and conditions of teachers, nurses et al had no problem at all signing off on exorbitant payments being made to consultants in Irish Water. The very worthlessness of most PR means there’s no limit to what can be charged for it. How can you accurately measure whether a bunch of pointless ads increased brand awareness among the electorate or some such rubbish.
Hence also the respect paid by the media in general to ‘experts’ whose expertise, when looked at in any detail, is often questionable. The trademark RTE programme of the 21st century largely consists of some unfortunate citizen standing in front of a desk and having a finger waved in his face by some corporate bollocks while he promises to do better next time.


ejh - January 15, 2014

the lack of respect for what would once have been regarded as decent jobs

Maybe. Commenting as an actual qualified librarian with several years’ professional experience, I think it’s always been acceptable to be bloody ignorant about who we are and what we do.

This is an amazing line:

“All the volunteers I come across say they are running their libraries far more cheaply than the local authority was doing it”

What does it mean except “people doing X for free observe that it is cheaper than paying for it”?


Eamonncork - January 15, 2014

I think almost anyone who uses libraries on a regular basis respects librarians.
One astounding thing about the response to this is the notion that libraries are somehow rendered superfluous because ‘you can look things up on the internet.’ But I’d say most people who I know use libraries don’t go there to ‘look things up’, they go there to bring home books and read them. And they do so because the price of new books makes buying them pretty prohibitive for anyone who has to watch the pennies. There’s a kind of boneheaded stupidity about this ‘everything can be replaced by the internet and social media’ attitude which annoys me.


WorldbyStorm - January 15, 2014



ejh - January 15, 2014

because ‘you can look things up on the internet.’

By the way, one thing that professional librarians learn, and have done for a long time, is how to look things up (or help other people look things up) properly on the internet, which remarkably enough can involve more than finding the homepage for Google.


3. EamonnCork - January 15, 2014

There’s also the galling hypocrisy of a Tory minister praising the benefits of voluntary labour when an article of faith on the right is that political and corporate appointees must be paid exorbitant wages otherwise the job wouldn’t be done properly.


4. EamonnCork - January 15, 2014

Anyway you need trained professionals to cope with the kind of unexpected incidents which can crop up like this,

Utterly gratuitous I know but I get so little opportunity these days.


5. Logan - January 15, 2014

The question is what sort of service is being provided. I remember reading a newspaper article a few months ago about a small library branch in a London suburb that had been taken over by volunteers, after being targeted for closure by the council.
The article was upbeat about how it was open for (say) 40 hours a week now, rather than the (say) 25 it had been before (i cannot remember the exact hours), and was now buzzing with exhibitions and book-club meetings and homework clubs, etc.
But reading on, it also said that as few of the volunteers did enough hours to master the software used for checking in and out books, it was actually only possible to borrow books there for something like 6 hours out of the 40 (or whatever) it was open, whereas previously this service (obviously the most central one in a public library!) had been provided at all times.
Also, although it had been given a stock of books on opening as a volunteer service, the local council had said that they couldn’t guarantee that they would continue to provide stock, which meant that either the volunteers would possibly have to engage on massive fundraising to cover expense of restocking in future, or see the books become progressively more tatty over the years.
Reading between the lines, I could see the library degenerating into a glorified community hall within a very few years, only opened up few hours a week a for a pre-booked club or society to use.

But the question is, what would be the backlash of that?
People accept it now in the spirit of manufactured crisis, but will people really accept this over ten or twenty years?


ejh - January 15, 2014

it was actually only possible to borrow books there for something like 6 hours out of the 40 (or whatever) it was open

Although to be honest they ought to have self-operated checkout by now, no?


Logan - January 15, 2014

I cannot remember the details, but I think the community library in question was totally independent, and therefore independent of the central cataloguing system of the council library- the books were literally given away to them and they were let have the building rent-free. There was nothing about what arrangements there would be for an inter-library loan with the rest of the system. I would imagine in a set-up such as that having a laptop and attached cheap barcode scanner would be cheaper to run than self-operated checkout machine with presumably expensive proprietary software.


Logan - January 15, 2014

Also, remember the economics of the situation here. In a volunteer library the labour is literally FREE. In a situation like the ILAC Library, installing a few expensive automatic check-out machines, (as they have in the last 24 months) that probably cost a couple of thousand a year each from the mixture of depreciation, servicing and (especially for machines like that), the software licensing, makes sense because you can eventually decrease the staffing levels, and thus save majorly in wage costs.
With an all volunteer library, you are you are looking at comparing the considerable up-front cost of the machine with the bother caused by the fact that not all of your zero-cost labour can get the hang of the laptop and barcode scanner, in a situation where there is very little liquid cash.
Not saying that a volunteer library would not go for the automated machine, but there are different incentives.


6. Joe - January 15, 2014

Here’s a story I heard from a friend who works in the public library. This happened in the last few months – in Leinster. I have no reason to believe that this isn’t true. A big suburban library had been totally revamped and then re-opened. It now offers the very best in modern library services – good collection of books, good reference book collection, internet access, language learning facilities, exhibition space, meeting rooms and so on.
A new county manager had just been appointed. Young bloke in his forties. The county librarian brought him out to show him the new library, a jewel in the crown for the library service. The county librarian gave him a tour of the library, very enthusiastically explaining all the various services on offer. He walked around hardly paying attention to what was being said. The he looked up at the ceiling, full of lots of electric lights, and said “How much do those fucking lights cost?”
Cue dedicated county librarian totally deflated and demoralised.
This is what’s happening to our public services – they are appointing philistines like this county manager and clearly giving them the brief of “stop spending money – if it costs us money to do, we shouldn’t be doing it.”


7. Gewerkschaftler - January 16, 2014

And in Canada…

The militant neo-liberal government is closing scientific libraries and destroying scientific documents that would incriminate them and their corporate owners in whole-sale ecocide.

At whose behest? These people:

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
Canadian Energy Pipeline Association
Petroleum Services Association of Canada
Propane Gas Association of Canada
Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors
Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association
Alberta Chamber of Resources
Alberta Chambers of Commerce
The Cement Association of Canada
Canadian Council of Chief Executives


8. Paddy Healy - March 28, 2014

Please restore my email notifications


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