Yesterday (10th January) Lauren Smith was interviewed in Radio York by Elly Fiorentini about proposed cuts to library services in North Yorkshire. http://bbc.in/hDswPs (7 mins 5 seconds in.)
Lauren, a qualified librarian, has been closely involved with the Save Doncaster Libraries Campaign and is spokesperson for Voices for the Library.
Whenever someone puts themselves forward to be interviewed by the media on library issues they take on a large burden of responsibility. Get it wrong and at best you have missed an opportunity to get the message across; at worse you could damage the case for libraries and loose support. Good intentions are not enough. If you are a spokesperson you do have to perform well. Lauren as far as I know has not had formal training in dealing with the media but she has had experience and she is excellent in this role. It could be argued that media interviews on behalf of the library profession should only be given by trained and media-savvy experts - a library spin-doctor if you like. The problem is that there people do not exist. Even CILIP does not have such a person and has in the past struggled when asked to put forward a spokesperson by the national media. Further it could be argued that, especially when dealing with the local media, you don't want someone who is too slick and polished. A real person, albeit with rough edges, can be more convincing.
Lauren as I said, came over very well. Her voice is young and engaging and her style is relaxed but authoritative. I suspect that she felt less confident than she sounded but she has clearly prepared herself well for this role and she is to be congratulated.
What about the specific questions she was asked? These are the sort of things that library campaigners might be asked by other local media so it worth looking at the questions and answered.
Elly Fiorentini began by asking why Voices for the Library was so concerned about the situation in North Yorkshire, which is the local angle that the local media would want to focus on. Lauren made the strong point that North Yorkshire is the largest local authority so there was the danger that communities would be isolated by the closure of branches. We need to identify a local angle even if many of the issues are common to the whole country.
Lauren was then asked a leading question about the cuts not being just about libraries loaning books and was able to come back with comments on digital inclusion, literacy and other community services. The only problem with this sort of question is that a short concise answer is needed and we have a whole range of things we could talk about. We need to select a brief list. The interviewer then asked if a local pub couldn't do the same thing. In some ways this is an easy question and Lauren was able to mention things that a librarian can do that a pub landlord can't! However we must recognise that many people's perception of a library is a few shelves of books with a friendly person stamping them out.
Next came the killer question. "Now we know that North Yorkshire County Council has got to save £20m and every service has to take its fair share of that. Surely it's a question of prioritising services - people might rather loose their library than see adult care suffer?"
It is inevitable that we will get this "what would you cut instead?" question and we have to have a good answer. We could take the line that the government has got it wrong and that cuts in public expenditure are not the answer (http://falseeconomy.org.uk/). However this moves the debate away from public libraries and into a more complex economic debate. We could argue that Eric Pickles has told councils that cuts should not be made to frontline services but it might not be a good idea to rely on Eric as an ally in this debate and some campaigners feel that libraries are guilty on spending too much money on staff and administration and savings could be achieved here. Lauren's response was to point out that libraries are being asked to make a disproportionately large percentage cut in their budget and that branches closures are unlikely to be reversed when the economy improves. A good case can be made that the amount that can be saved by cutting libraries is relatively small compared with the damage caused and that the need for libraries is greater at a time of economic cuts. Libraries help people in care, and there carers, and are part of the solution - not the problem.
Elly Fiorentini then returned to the issue of the local community taking over library services. Again Lauren stressed the quality of service that could be provided. We do have to be careful when arguing that only librarians can be trusted to run libraries in case we sound arrogant and elitist - or come over as only interested in protecting our own jobs. We must not alienate library supporters who may feel that more community involvement is a good thing. However the quality of service argument is a good one to stress.
Finally Elly again asked Lauren "What is your solution then? It's very difficult because give the cuts they have got to happen somewhere". Of course, library campaigners must avoid the temptation to suggest cuts in other areas. There does need to be a debate about how we achieve a more cost effective library service with less emphasis on the bricks and mortar of traditional branch libraries and more on the delivery of services to communities through a range of access points but this does not make for a good sound bite. Lauren's point about the unfairness of the percentage cut applied to libraries was probably the best answer.