Saturday, 6 June 2015

As one door closes...

Lostock Library is having a tea party to mark its closing
I may have visited my local library for the last time today.

In a couple of weeks' time it will have closed as a public library. The news isn't all entirely bleak: the school that hosts the library and the local housing trust have both recognised the importance of libraries to the community and have stepped in to try and rescue at least some part of the service. So the library will reopen as a "community library" staffed by volunteers with support from the school librarian. It's great that they've recognised the need (and a measure of the way these types of organisations have changed and expanded their remit over the years) and I wish everyone involved the best of luck but I worry about its sustainability, especially with a prolonged period of the austerity experiment stretching out ahead of us.

This sort of thing is happening all over the country: unprecedented cuts in local authority budgets are leading to unprecedented cuts in services. Westminster government's cuts in public sector funding have hit local authorities disproportionately and within each authority the burden of cuts has affected some services more badly than others.Some areas — support for schools, child care services, adult care services and public health services — are ring-fenced by central government decree so receive some degree of protection (but only some degree of protection); the remainder, including statutory services like libraries, have to do as best can with their share of the meagre scraps remaining. And it will get worse as there are fewer and fewer options left for responding to each fresh demand for required savings.

It's easy to say that library managers should do this, that or the other. In some cases this may still be the case. In the past, certainly, a generation of library managers revelled, almost to a masochistic degree, in the challenge of demonstrating that it was business as usual no matter how their budgets were chipped away. Those days are long since gone and are already almost a fading memory. It's much tougher now and there is scant wriggle room or scope for creative budgeting for library managers to be able to present business as usual. And in some cases it's downright impossible…

I hadn't realised it was 15 years since Lostock Library was moved out of its own purpose-built little building next to the bus stop and shunted into a small room in the corner of the school next door. I'm a middle-aged male with no children so I have views about shifting libraries into venues that tend to exclude a significant minority of public library users. And my experience of libraries' moving into schools has been that they tend to become a really useful resource for the school and rather less so for the local adult population. Still, we were better off than some: during the post-millennial boom where many councils, including the one I still work for, were investing in their libraries Trafford Council were making cuts. Two libraries were closed and replaced by what were, in effect, deposit libraries in corners of leisure centres. Ironically, these leisure centres are now also both at serious risk of the chop to save money. When last year, after more than a decade of cuts and hollowings-out, the library service was faced with a cut of one third of its budget it would have been impossible for the service's managers to deliver the existing service and, to be fair to them, they didn't pretend to anyone that it was possible. It was no great surprise when the cuts proposals were made public: the writing was already on the wall for Lostock when the opening hours were changed so that as children were coming out of school the library closed its doors. I went to one of the public consultations about the closure and for all that members of the public complained about the unacceptability of what was being proposed they were under no illusions about the impact of a cut of this magnitude on a service that was already down to the bone. When, at half-past the eleventh hour, the school stepped up to the plate to offer to take over it was seen as a lifeline. It can't be a like-for-like replacement and staff will still be losing their jobs and that is awful but the thinking is that it's not a complete loss and it may be a way of keeping the patient alive until times change and some sort of rescue becomes possible. On the flip side, there'll be a building with the word "Library" on it and the doors will be open sometime so some politicians could present that as being business as usual. It's the community-level version of the prisoner's dilemma and it's being played out nationwide.

I may not be able to be a customer of the new library in any case: the school's closed on Saturdays and it's only odd times like my being on leave today when I could visit during the weekday opening times. I could be wrong: there may be other options in the pipeline that allow more convenient opening hours, I don't know. But in any case, fifty years after my first visit it's almost certainly the last time I'll have visited Lostock's public library.


  1. It's all so very sad and so unnecessary - given how much these places cost to run. In my experience libraries in schools simply do not work, even when specially designed. They were a good idea in the days before our paranoia meant that children were locked into schools, and every member of the public was treated as a potential predator.

    My feeling is that public libraries will be able to coast for a few years, using the momentum created by the managers they can no longer afford. Those which historically had generous staffing levels will survive the best, along with those that have political support. I can't see the current number of LMS suppliers continuing. And the current duopoly of book suppliers seems more and more precarious as the number of librarians with any sort of understanding of the business dwindles.

    Meanwhile, I'm going back to my ebook downloaded from Overdrive. They don't charge fines on them.

  2. I can't argue with any of that, Chris. It's tragic, unnecessary and cost-inefficient. The scale and speed of the current calamity just demonstrates the extent of the hollowing-out of the foundations of the public library service over very many years. In my darker moments it feels like it was all pre-ordained fifty years ago and we've just been kidding ourselves all along that we could make a difference to the clockwork precision of the death spiral.