The news that the 'savelibraries' hash tag trended on Twitter may be gobbledygook to many people. Even if you understand that it means that the number of messages posted on the popular microblogging site which used the subject tag #savelibraries reached such a level recently that it featured on the Twitter list of most popular trends then you might not be very impressed. After all, if celebrity obsessed air-heads who have nothing better to do with their time then sending tweets suddenly become interested in saving libraries - so what?
That would be an unfair conclusion to reach. OK, Twitter is not the real world and should not be confused with stuff that is important but it is an indication that the sort of people who use Twitter are interested in libraries and that the sort of people who use libraries are interested in Twitter, and both of those statements should be of interest to librarians.
And it's not just Twitter. The bookseller reported that "Library campaigns are on the rise", the Independent on Sunday leader proclaimed "Overdue! The fight to save our libraries begins" and the Guardian has carried a series of articles and reports. But it is in the local press and radio that you can hear the real voice of people fighting to protect their local public libraries.
So what does this outburst of support for libraries mean for librarians? Most of us will be heartened by this confirmation that people love libraries. The library profession as a whole welcomes what is happening. But at the same time there are areas of disagreement and conflict. Being a supporter of libraries is not necessarily the same as being a supporter of those who run libraries (1).
This is illustrated by recent controversy around comments made by Roy Clare, Chief Executive of MLA (2).
Roy Clare is not a librarian or a library manager but his organisation exists to support local authorities in the running of public libraries and his comments reflect the views of many heads of library services.
"Public libraries will not be preserved by wishful thinking and aspic. Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class. These are perspectives that too few commentators – whether journalists or campaigners – care to hear about, still less to understand."
Many have complained that Clare was dismissing library campaigners as "the privileged, mainly white, middle class" as a way of rubbishing their arguments - an accusation that he strongly refutes. Instead, like many librarians, he is warning against a too narrow vision of what libraries can and should be doing.
Campaigners have also objected to statements made by Clare that appear to show support for the decision of some library authorities to close branch libraries, e.g.
"… future services should be modelled around objective measures of local needs, where necessary adapting to trends (including changes in demographics, new housing, High Street re-development etc).
In some places (and there is no uniform template) that means some closures; some changes in style and approach; some new ways of thinking; and some thought to using alternatives to existing provision (for example, exploring the opportunities presented by other community spaces nearby, and considering the implications of new technologies); and focusing especially on maintaining or enabling access for a range of cultures and languages (in cities and many towns) and on the particular needs of rural communities, where too many people still have no library service at all and some innovation is needed (including hook-ups with supermarket delivery services, as some Councils are considering)."
These comments reflect a long standing view of many librarians that the library service as it exists now needs to be re-engineered to face the challenges we are facing. With additional cuts of around 30% to library budgets being proposed library managers have to consider the best way of maintaining a quality library service with less money. For many the answer is to focus on developing a quality service and then explore cost effective methods of making this service available to the community. Maintaining a large number of small library buildings with very limited opening hours is not always the most cost effective solution. The alternative of making cuts on this scale without closing branches is just death by a thousand cuts for the service as a whole.
Inevitably and understandably, campaigners see things in a different light. They reject or ignore the need for cuts. They argue that their local library service is essential for them and they are not responsible for the needs of the service as a whole. In most cases they are happy to campaign for the preservation of a local status quo rather than seeking to meet unmet needs elsewhere. None of this is necessarily wrong. Indeed it is supported by recent trends away from the "big state" towards localism. We live in a market economy and the views of the individual customer are supposed to be paramount.
All this leaves those who manage public libraries - especially the professional librarians - in a dilemma. They believe that cuts to library services are wrong but they have a choice of either resigning in protest or continuing to manage the service as best they can within the new budget. They might decide not to close branches to deflect the anger this would cause, but are aware that this might cause more damage to the service as a whole. They may be tempted to placate the articulate library users at the expense of excluded groups with less of a voice. Above all they feel that a gap is opening up between them and their users whose support they value and need. As one local librarian put it:
[Library campaigners] seem to be focusing on bricks and mortar and equating a library service only with a building. This negates a lot of good discussion about what a library service is … [and is] fundamental if you are actually trying to offer better value for money to the majority of your users and better access rather than seeing everything as a budget cut.
The SINTO executive briefing Library campaigns - Are we all inside the tent? (4) provides an opportunity to reflect on these issues. It will bring together various speakers to present the views of campaigners and the library profession with the opportunity for dialogue. The briefing itself may not provide a solution to the dilemma it will be an opportunity to gain more information and understanding of the issues.
(1) Libraries are run by senior professional librarians but they report to senior council officers and are ultimately responsible to the elected members.
(2) Much of this debate was inspired by an article in the Daily Mail. The MLA has made a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission that the Daily Mail piece was an "inaccurate, misleading, distorted and defamatory account of the views of Mr Clare". I will focus on what he actually said.