The news of the transfer of museums and libraries (but not archives) from the MLA to the Arts Council was I suspect greeted by the majority of the profession with neither whoops of joy nor cries of disappointment. For many people the overall strategic framework in which we operate has little practical impact on what we do. For public librarians fighting against or struggling to manage cuts in public libraries the change may appear to be about rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
While having some sympathy for this view I do feel that this strategic framework is important and has the potential to make an impact on what we do for good or for ill. It is therefore a discussion which library staff at all levels should be part of.
The aim of this review by Baroness Morris of Yardley is to consider how the five strategic goals in the Arts Council strategic document Achieving great art for everyone, could be developed so as to embrace the expanded responsibility of the Council for museums and libraries. Critics of the review have said that “They [the Arts Council] are trying to shoehorn the needs of the library sector to fit in with the functions of the Arts Council". To some extent this is a valid point. The existing Arts Council goals are being developed. No one is suggesting that they should be torn up and a completely new set of goals written. That is the political reality and I am not sure that there is any point in trying to change that. We need to accept the good intention of the Council in commissioning this "icebreaker" and embarking on "a wider conversation with the libraries and museums sector about our future role."
One concern of the libraries sector is with dilution. If we accept that there is a need for a strategic oversight of the libraries sector then we want a body that can focus on libraries and understands the sector. There used to be a Library and Information Commission. This merged with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and now this is merging with the Arts Council. We fear that no one really understands what it is we do; will this just get worse when we are a small fish in an even larger pool?
A second concern is that the Arts Council is not a good partner for the libraries sector. Yes, there are areas of common ground but do we really have much in common with the 'luvvies' of the Arts world. Won't we be left nursing a drink in the corner of the ball while the person who brought us dances with the glitterati?
The solution to these concerns surely lies in our own hands and that is why we should be careful of responding negatively to this initial approach. As Baroness Morris points out "One of the challenges for any sector is not to let itself be defined by its organisational structure… The success of any sector depends in part of its ability to cross boundaries and link with and learn from others. The activity itself can outlive its organisational structure."
We must not allow ourselves to be defined as wallflowers. The roll of libraries is unique and special but Baroness Morris has identified enough areas of common ground and synergy to make further debate worthwhile. She has suggested the following overarching goal:
"Museums and libraries, art and performance are of value in their own right but they only make real sense when they connect with people and become part of the life of the nation and its citizens. The overarching goal of the arts and culture sector must be to realise its potential as an essential part of a civil and civilised society."
No, perhaps this statement on its own would not convince council leaders bent on wielding the axe that public libraries are really needed. But it echoes what many librarians and library campaigners have been saying, and by joining together with artists and performers - and those who appreciate such things - it must give us greater strength.
Baroness Morris concludes:
"Whether it is a performer or an artist, a local library or a major collection, it is only through being confident in themselves that they will ever recognise their place in the wider sector and the part they can play in society."
We cannot expect others to share this belief in our role if we don't recognise it ourselves and express it with confidence. We cannot allow ourselves to be the wallflower at the party. As Diana Krall said:
There may be trouble ahead
But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance
Let's face the music and dance