I think that goes for English public libraries generally, too. I consciously stepped away from the nightmare about eighteen months ago. Before then I'd been doing odds and ends and then I'd offered to lend a hand to the Library Taskforce. After a while I had to conclude that that had become an expensive hobby that wasn't getting anywhere. This was no fault of the Taskforce, it was the fault of the political realities it has to work in. At that time much of the work that we had been talking about had been stalled for the best part of six months awaiting a ministerial signature to the action plan, a consequence of a change of Prime Minister and a ministerial reshuffle. Ironically, the plan was published the same day I finally decided to send the email thanking them for having me and wishing them luck in the future. Not planned, just one of those nasty coincidences real life throws at us.
My breaking with the Taskforce wasn't a reflection on the action plan, it was a reflection of my sense that I wasn't doing anything useful. Until the plan was authorised we couldn't take any action. We'd spent a few months discussing how to use the library data that the Taskforce had managed to collect so far. Objectively this was nothing much, just a list of all the libraries in England and their current status (open, closed or various flavours of "community" library). In fact, collecting this was like pulling teeth and involved trawling round hundreds of web sites to build a list, then each library authority was sent a list with the note more or less saying: "We think these are all your libraries. Please could you confirm/deny and make any corrections. Thanks." Most authorities responded and any corrections were made to the "definitive" list; when an authority didn't respond the hope had to be that they hadn't found any mistakes. And then we sat around, full of ideas and possibilities but not being able to get anywhere. Which is why I felt I was being useless and eventually quit.
(When this data set was finally released, after the action plan had been authorised, there were howls of anguish about what wan't included. "This is available already from CIPFA statistics," somebody complained, ignorant the fact that the reason why CIPFA stats weren't trawled in the first place is that a large minority of library authorities don't submit the data every year, or in some cases at all. This was what it said on the tin: an attempt to create a definitive list of English public libraries with a model process for keeping it up to date, the base on which to build other national or regional data sets about the libraries, their services, their use and their contexts within their communities.)There were things in the action plan I could argue with but by and large it provided something to work with, given the working realities of a fatally-fragmented service with no standards for service delivery or performance management set as a small backwater in local government provision that had had its funding halved, with most of what remained buttonholed by adult and children's care services. The underlying problem was (and still is) that there is no way of changing that working reality: on top of the usual inertias and contests between vested interests there were the lingering effects of Localism and — worse, much, much worse — a Brexit that was already occupying most of the time, energies and resources of government with scant room for business as usual let alone a radical rethink of public library policy. So the action plan was inevitably going to disappoint anyone looking for a white knight to charge to the rescue of English public libraries. The complaint was that this was too little, too late. And of course it was: nothing short of a shitload of money and a time machine was going to be any different. And even then, once you'd gone back to the Golden Age of English Public Libraries (which I would argue would be 1996 – 2007) what response would you get? "Oh we're much too busy, besides, they can't cut us we're a statutory service." In my experience the history of English public libraries over the past thirty years is littered with the expectation that somebody will come along to make everything better, just so long as they don't change anything.
Which brings me to the other reason to step away awhile. There's a fine line between many years of experience and a hell of a lot of baggage. For example, when the argument is being made that English public libraries are best placed for bringing information literacy to their communities the reply: "Well, they didn't, did they?" isn't an unfair response but it isn't helpful or useful, especially not in the context of an existential struggle for the future of the service. It's the sort of stuff that might be useful to a post-survival lessons learned or a "How did we get there and how do we stop it happening again?" process but isn't useful now.
So I've withdrawn from the field. Whether or not this is temporary, I don't know. Life happens while you're making other plans. I wish those still engaged the best of luck, with the unhappy knowledge that they will need it.