Friday, 9 January 2009

Libraries on the brink?

Recent economic developments mean that we all feel that we are standing at the edge of an abyss and public librarians in particular can be forgiven for fearing that disaster may be just around the corner. Most of the indicators are bleak. Book issues continue to fall. Library visits have increased over the past five years but are only just back to the levels of ten years ago. The People's Network is now nine years old and has lacked the investment needed to keep it up-to-date. Many librarians fear that the current recession will result in serious cuts in local authority expenditure. We seem to be unable to convince our funders and policy makers that libraries are part of the solution for the problems they face and as a result face short-sighted cuts. Doncaster and the Wirral are only the latest examples of this. Our supporters criticise us either for not modernising the image of libraries or for abandoning our traditional role.

Two reviews of public libraries are underway, one from the DCMS and the other from the All-Parliamentary Group on Libraries chaired by Lyn Brown MP. Meanwhile UNISON has published its own review Taking stock: the future of our public library services. Laura Swaffield from CILIP Update gives this report a positive review but sounds a warning:

"In other words, it's a well-timed pre-emptive strike against what we all know is going to happen. The government will say libraries are lovely, but they will be cut to ribbons anyway. Lyn Brown will say the system is a shambles, with too many entities involved in libraries & nobody to take the lead, and they will be cut to ribbons anyway."

What we have to avoid is sinking into despair and cynicism. The film The Hollywood Librarian, for all its faults, does give an inspiring message about the value of libraries and librarians. We need to hold on to that vision and fight to defend what we believe in. CILIP (for all its faults) has produced a Campaigning toolkit to help create an effective grassroots action plan to demonstrate our value as library and information professionals. We should be using this toolkit now - not waiting until further cuts and restructurings are proposed.

Perhaps SINTO should have a "Save our libraries" group like our other professional interest groups? I think this would be a legitimate role for SINTO and I would be happy to facilitate such a group if the SINTO members wanted to support the idea. What do you think?

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