Thoughts On The Sieghart Report On Libraries
28th December 2014Some times of the year are a good time to bury bad news, and the 18th December, when everyone is gearing up for Christmas, certainly qualifies. That's why I'm posting about the Sieghart report today, now that I've had a chance to cast aside the whirlwind of wrapping paper and mince pies in order to digest its findings.
The thing is, the Sieghart report isn't even bad news. It's just as dry as dust, and it states the obvious in as soft a way as possible. If I wanted to write a report designed to be ignored, this is the style I'd use, and 18th December is the release date I'd pick. Add in a few uncontroversial proposals about WiFi and national digital networks, and it's the perfect storm of a report unworthy of any ink whatsoever.
The crisisExcept UK libraries are in crisis, and it's a scandal that deserves a great deal of attention. Yes, there are a lot of other political scandals that the libraries are in competition with, I don't deny. However, spending on libraries in 2013/14 has fallen 18% in real terms since its peak in 2009/10, and the numbers of libraries have fallen from 4622 in 2003 to just 4145 by the end of 2014. Where libraries haven't closed altogether hours have been cut, mobile stops withdrawn, and staff numbers reduced. In my home county of Lincolnshire the council proposed a £2 million budget reduction, and whilst this was reduced to £1.73 million after much wrangling, the only things that have been settled so far have been the job losses and reductions in hours.
Sadly, Lincolnshire is far from alone.
Where is the fire?So Sieghart's report should have been brimming with anger over a service that the current government is demolishing, because whoops, there goes our literacy and culture and generations of future readers.
Lauren Smith had a run-down of the report's major recommendations, and a well-considered response to them. As for me, I'm more inclined to dig out my pitchforks and torches, for the reasons stated above. But first I'll comment on a few of the report's specifics. Sieghart's proposals are in bold.
- Roll WiFi out to every library in the country.
Yes, why not? It's surprising this hasn't been done already. The UK is, after all, a wealthy country.
- Create a national digital network.
Again, why hasn't it been done already? It would be much more efficient to have one digital lending website than to have a different one for each local authority.
- Establish a library taskforce led by councils.
Someone has to be responsible for implementing the findings in this report, it's true, but councillors are perhaps the worst choice for this task. Sieghart even admits as much at the beginning of the report:
"Two themes have emerged, consistently and dramatically. ... The second was that not enough decision makers at national or local level appear sufficiently aware of the remarkable and vital value that a good library service can offer modern communities of every size and character."
That's a nice way of saying too many councillors are philistines. My own experience of campaigning with Save Lincolnshire Libraries taught me that the Tory-controlled council was run by people who seemed to value austerity-driven ideology over literacy.
- Encourage and develop the library workforce, especially new recruits and graduates
The best way to do this is to stop sacking people and making librarians fear for their job security, stop devaluing their role by suggesting it could be done just as well by unpaid volunteers, and stop cutting working hours and/or rates of pay. It's very hard to be motivated when a profession is contracting.
In other words, the libraries could be fixed by not doing your level best to discourage librarians from ever entering the profession, Mr Vaisey. Who would have thought?
- Develop sector-led best practice guidelines to help local authorities when working with volunteers and
Better yet, rely on trained professionals. If you pay people nothing, you can't expect a professional level of service, or even for people to stay around for months if they don't really want to. There's one nugget in the report: "There are examples of volunteer only libraries being set up across the country though there is a tendency for these to be established in reasonably affluent areas." People have to be able to afford to volunteer, and that's only going to happen where people have other sources of income and savings.
A lot of the rest of the report is filler that states obvious things, like this gem: "The need to share what works will continue to be of the utmost importance." Oh, boy.
That's the section that could have been filled with decent facts and figures from academic studies on the value of libraries to the general public. Such studies exist and have been carried out around the world. Instead we get fluff that isn't going to change anything. This matters, because the only way this report could come close to getting its recommendations acted upon is by convincing those in power that libraries are worth something. When you have the likes of Eric Pickles in government, a man who considers library campaigners to be "luvvies", there's a lot of work to do on that front.
What libraries really needWhat do libraries need to bring them into the 21st century? Is it for someone to come along and take a look at how they work, and figure out where they've been going wrong, and give us the magic answer that fixes all the things? Something like a mighty white knight of all things library?
No. Because that didn't work the other times. "There have already been far too many library reviews in recent years which have come to nothing," William Sieghart admits in the foreword.
That approach doesn't work because this isn't about a disorganised group of know-nothings who need to be told how to run things. Librarians are some of the smartest people, but they're not miracle workers and nobody can create something wonderful from nothing at all.
The real solution is as simple as it is politically charged. The government must fund libraries properly, and treat it as an important resource. Nothing else will do.
Other responsesPublic Libraries News has an editorial on the Sieghart report, with lots of links to other posts analysing it.
© Ros Jackson