A debate local historians cannot ignore

I have lost count of how many times over the past twenty-five years Local History Magazine has said 'Libraries matter'. Most of the references have been made in relation to some kind of threat or yet another round of consultations about the future of libraries (I typed 'libraries consultation' into Google and got 785,000 hits for the UK) .

Ask yourself, where would we be without our local libraries or local studies libraries? Many of the former have closed and I have lost count of how many of the latter have been subsumed into reference libraries and archives. As recently as LHM No.123 (March/April 2009) we reported the concerns of local studies librarians about not being allowed to attend professional events and the lack of training for new staff. I made the point then that 'Local Studies staff are VIPs when it comes to local (and family) history and it's about time local history societies, either individually or collectively, did more to lobby politicians and councils on their behalf'.

The latest library consultation goes under the title, Empower, Inform, Enrich and takes the form of glossy book containing twenty-nine contributions, many from the good and the worthy. There are also twelve 'case studies' of new approaches to the development and management of libraries in different parts of England. The consultation was launched by Margaret Hodge MP, the Minister of Culture, on 1 December 2009 and responses have to be sent in by 26 January 2010. What caught the attention of the media was the fact that one of the contributors is Darcy Willson-Rymer, UK and Ireland Managing Director of Starbucks (more about what he had to say later). Perhaps he was a deliberate plant by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) intended to get the headlines. If so, it worked. Well, for a day at least. I say this because I found an excellent website ( devoted to Empower, Inform, Enrich, where you can search the document for the ideas and observations of the contributors by topic, then post your own comments and join in the online discussion. After two weeks, there were only twelve comments posted by a grand total of two people, one of whom was responsible for ten of the comments.

The consultation wants the public and organisations to address 'a series of questions relating to five significant challenges for the library service'. These are:

  • How can the library service demonstrate to citizens, commentators and politicians that it is still relevant and vital?
  • How can we reverse the current trend of decline in library usage and 'grow the numbers' using their local library?
  • How can all libraries respond to a 24/7 culture and respond to changing expectations of people who want immediate access to information.
  • How can all libraries grasp the opportunities presented by digitisation?
  • How can the library service cope with limited public resource and economic pressures?

DCMS sees this as an 'opportunity for a comprehensive survey of views from as wide a range of people as possible', which will be quickly followed by a policy statement in the spring of 2010, setting out 'the Government’s vision for the future of public libraries'. One wonders why the haste, when there will be a general election in early-May 2010 at the latest. Whatever happens, it is important that local historians respond, especially since I could find only one passing reference to 'local studies' (by Andrew Smith, Chief Executive, Hampshire County Council) in the contributions and in one of the case studies (Worcester Library & History Centre).

If future government policy is to be based on what this pre-selected group of individuals say, then God help our local libraries! The general theme which seems to emerge is that many want a 'national' library service, open longer hours, seven days a week and run by various kinds of bodies, with most dismissing local councils as being best placed to run our local library services. The word 'democracy' in the context of this report seems to mean anything but. How can local communities have any say or control over their public libraries after they have been hived off to national corporations, local trusts or privatised? This is a question which none of those advocating such things address.

Only one of the contributors is a local councillor. This fact in itself tells you what Margaret Hodge and DCMS really think about local democracy and those who presently control most of our library services. Councillor Chris White, who is a Liberal Democrat county councillor in Hertfordshire and Chair of the Local Government Association's Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, believes that 'Information, unedited, unrationed, is the foundation of a free society (and) the library services councils provide (are) an essential part of democracy'. He also argues cogently for a new Libraries Act.

Shirley Burnham of the Save Old Town Library Campaign in Swindon is the only other community voice. After a year of campaigning, Swindon Council has said it will keep a branch library in Old Town, but as she points out 'It is not only the credit crunch that has threatened the existence of community libraries; they were under threat long before, in times of plenty'. She goes on to argue that, often those who want '…something big and shiny… want to make (a) mark on history, but whose lavish creation at high cost will destroy the smaller libraries — disregarding local need and community cohesion'. She ends her contribution by accusing some councils of 'threaten(ing) residents with the choice of library closures or neglecting services to the elderly' and describes this as 'a cynical ploy that obscures the issues surrounding whether public money is wasted by a council in many other areas'.

There are two contributions from members of the Advisory Council on Libraries. Professor Michael Thorne, the Council's Chair, wants a 'national library corporation with local boards' and Amanda Ridout, one of his colleagues, wants to 'upgrade the universal consumer experience' and see 'partnerships with private businesses'. They are supported by Bob McKee, Chief Executive, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, who believes that 'A system delivered by 151 separate Public Library Authorities in England is inherently inefficient' and cites the example of Northern Ireland, where one service was established earlier this year.

However, there are contributions which do promote a genuinely democratic, community based, alternative: Martin Molloy OBE, Strategic Director of Cultural & Community Services, Derbyshire County Council, believes that local libraries '… are a hub for community activity, a focus for engagement through consultation, advice surgeries and information events, and a place where families can learn and grow. Libraries narrow the gap between the haves and the have nots; they are places where a fresh start is always possible'. He also says that whilst 'emerging models of community ownership are interesting, they can never achieve the joined-up approach (which communities need), nor should they be used to fudge difficult political decisions about use of resources'.

Andrew Smith, Chief Executive of Hampshire County Council, describes libraries as being 'A creative service at the heart of Hampshire communities, which prides itself on meeting their evolving needs for reading, information, learning and enjoyment'. He gives the impression of being a person committed to providing a library service that meets the needs of the county's residents. 'We will achieve this by working increasingly closely with, and listening to, the communities we serve, our partners and colleagues. We must ensure that our communities know about all the services that we offer and that our staff is fully trained and supported to respond to the challenges ahead'.

Nicky Parker, Head of Library & Information Services for Manchester City Council, appears as equally committed to the public sector as Martin Molloy and Andrew Smith, but she thinks differently. Perhaps it has a lot to do with providing a library service in a large city: 'Our buildings need to look good, we need grand designs and they need to be in the right place. We all know the location, location, location mantra, but how far will we go to relocate, co-locate and integrate? Here lies the answer to creating the new public library and it’s not just a question of shoving random services under the same roof. We need to interweave the golden thread that links co-located services and helps make them integrated, gives them a make over and turns them into something new. This is the new library. This is Britain’s Next Top Model. It joins together books with learning spaces for adults, it melds children’s libraries with Surestart centres and it puts the People’s Network into supermarkets.'

Against these more positive, sometimes questioning, voices, there are all too many contributions from those who see local library users as 'customers' and library services as part of a 'market place', ripe for turning into trusts or privatising, so that they can take advantage of 'new funding streams'. Margaret Hodge, in her introduction to Empower, Inform, Enrich, begins by saying 'Public libraries have a beloved status in UK democratic life'. She then sets about undermining both libraries and the idea of local democratic control. One has to question the competence of someone who asks the question 'Why can’t we take that further and let people borrow in Bromley, but return their book in Birmingham?'. Margaret Hodge is one of those national politicians happy to harangue local councillors about how they manage their budgets and services, whilst promoting stupid ideas which will end up costing a small fortune to administer or provide the private sector with the opportunity to make big profits at public expense.

The plain truth is there has never been a time when we could have libraries open seven days a week, nor should we want them to be. As for opening hours, there has to be some common-sense approach which takes account of not just staff costs, but public accessibility to libraries during the evenings, when bus services in many places are few and far between. So, what is the answer? I believe there are many different, local, answers. What local historians should already know is that when it comes to public service, innovation and enterprise, local councils are the supreme champions — if only central government (and self-interested professionals with national agendas) would let them get on with the job, albeit guided by a nationally formulated framework embodied in a new Libraries Act, just as Chris White calls for. He deserves our support.

There is much in this very important, albeit deeply flawed, library consultation for local (and family) historians to think about before arguing the case for local studies and the place of 'heritage' in our local libraries. Of course, it may all come to nothing and any national debate about the future of our library services lost until such time as the incoming government decides that our public libraries are once again worthy of their attention.

At the beginning of this article, I did promise more about Darcy Willson-Rymer, UK and Ireland Managing Director of Starbucks. Rachel Cooke, writing in The Observer (6 December 2009) described his contribution as 'just one long advertisement'. She also alerted me to Empower, Inform, Enrich. My politics led me to suspect that I would share her view. In fact, I don't. Mr Willson-Rymer's contribution is succinct and is one which, for the most part, I share. He says: 'Making the library the hub of community life in the UK may be the best bet for its survival — at a time when the library is no longer the only place where knowledge can be found… Everyone needs a place to go. It’s something we call the “third place”. It’s neither home nor work, but a comfortable spot where you are welcome to stay as long as you like. Libraries need to be a “third place” of choice rather than a last resort for increasingly isolated or marginalised groups'. If every library ended up providing coffee, tea and biscuits, à la Starbucks, it really could turn them into the 'community hubs' we all seem to want them to be — even if it means, yes, closing and re-locating some libraries.

For more information or to submit a response by 26 January 2010, contact DCMS Libraries & Archives Team, 2–4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DH, email: You can download Empower, Inform, Enrich at For online comments and discussion visit:

Robert Howard

16 December 2009

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