In November 2006 the web site for 10 Downing Street introduced an e-petitions service. This allowed anyone to create a petition and then invite members of the public to sign it to show their support. It was clearly intended as an exercise in popular democracy enabling people to express their opinion on matters of concern but it has been criticized as at best a token gesture and at worst a way for the government to compile a mailing list that they can use to spread official propaganda!
There have been two petitions recently about libraries. One called on the Prime Minister to keep the British Library Free of charge to users (16,646 signatures) and the other asked him to make the provision of professionally staffed libraries within all schools, both secondary and primary, statutory (1,794 signatures).
The Government's response to the BL petition was
The British Library preserves, promotes and celebrates our language and literature, two of our greatest contributions to the world's cultural heritage. It also underpins research in the higher education and business sectors, playing what is an essential part in a modern knowledge economy. This Government has supported the Library in fulfilling these roles since 1997, and will continue to do so.
It is, however, independent of Government, and makes its own management decisions, including on issues such as admission charges.
On school libraries it said:
The provision of a school library is not a statutory requirement and there are no current plans to alter this situation and change the legislation. It is the Government's policy to put as much money as possible directly into schools' budgets, allowing schools to target resources appropriately and to make their own choices about their school library provision and book resourcing.
At their best school libraries are an invaluable asset to teachers and a source of great enjoyment, and learning, for children. There are various models of library provision in schools. Schools may have an on-site school library managed by a librarian, the collection may be managed by teachers and/or volunteers; or the onsite library may be run with or without the support of a Schools Library Service.
Schools Library Services are optional services run by local authorities. Where there is no school library, book loans and professional advice are usually provided by a Schools Library Service. The Ofsted report 2006 'Good School Libraries' states that "Schools Library Services provided good support for schools, including specialist audits and advice, additional resources, training and opportunities for networking".
The BL statement is supportive but does not commit the Government to any action. The school library statement is dismissive, talking of models which may not feature a librarian or the input of the School Library Service.
It is probably a mistake to believe that the Government would ever want to intervene directly in the running of libraries of any type and we would be naive to believe that a petition would make a difference. The only e-petition to have had an impact was the road charging petition which attracted 1.5 million signatures. Unless we can raise that sort of support for an issue the Government's response will be "bovvered?"
As the response to the school library petition indicates, we need to identify who makes the decisions and who holds the budget. We then have to sell the benefits of our "product" to these people. We can't expect schools to be interested in employing a professional librarian as an end in itself. Rather we have to convince them that a professional librarian will enable them to achieve some goal that is important to them i.e. a better (cheaper) way of educating children. This requires school librarians to demonstrate a high level of professional competence and a broad view of the role of the library in the school. An example of this (and a valuable source for CPD) are the presentations given at the recent School Library Association weekend school in Nottingham. These presentations are available on the SLA website
I suspect that a school would be far more impressed by an individual who has this level of professional expertise than they would by an e-petition to the Prime Minister. The paradox of course is that a school that uses the model of a library run by teachers or volunteers will probably not be expose to this sort of person and will never know what they are missing.