About 100 people packed the room for the first-ever public discussion of the Sieghart report (in the House of Commons, hosted by the All-Party parliamentary group for libraries, on 14 January). Laura Swaffield, Chair of the Library campaign, reports.
Everyone, seemingly, wants to know if Sieghart will be just ‘another bloody report’ that won’t lead to action. William Sieghart has always said he’s determined otherwise.
So what do we know now?
Three assorted plums:
1. Sieghart tantalisingly said: ‘I can’t announce anything yet…’ but he reckons he will soon secure ‘one or two corporate breakthroughs in terms of delivering some new technology… which I hope will make a big difference.’
Let’s hope that means something concrete – money even. ‘Local authorities need a few carrots,’ he hinted.
2. The one concrete action so far, of course, is to set up a taskforce. Sieghart mentioned that old bugbear, lack of leadership.
To my surprise, he added: ‘What is delightful is that the Arts Council has ceded its leadership role to the taskforce. So I’m hopeful that it will have the people, the responsibility and the resources.’ That looks like quite a step. Maybe.
3. The leader of the taskforce, Northants Chief Executive Paul Blantern, was there. He seems a can-do kind of bloke.
And he swore he’d had an ‘absolute assurance’ that there was nothing suspicious about the way the Sieghart report limped out just as everyone was going off for the Christmas hols. The fact is ‘completely contrary’ to the myth, he said. The government was ‘anxious to get it out before Christmas’ to avoid delay.
Well, we’ll see. It’s encouraging that he asked about it. Still doesn’t explain why the report lingered on ministerial desks all through October, November and most of December…
Dr Blantern was the person I most wanted to hear. He didn’t say much. But I did like what I heard.
‘I am a delivery person’ he declared. Better, he said that while Sieghart sees the taskforce working for three or four years -’bluntly, if we don’t achieve something in the next few months we will have failed.’
He’s not out to reinvent the wheel. The taskforce will ‘harness’ all the work that’s already being done. Fine.
His watchword will be: ‘How does it add value?’ He wants to get the decision-makers to understand what libraries can do for them. That’s the only realistic approach.
He’s now busy finishing off a paper on ‘what I think we can deliver, and the money we need’. Sounds good.
Oh, and he promised a first taskforce report in six months.
He was asked to do that by Ian Stephens, the new-ish chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sports board. That’s encouraging. The LGA fully supports the report and the taskforce, he said.
Cllr Stephens had been to see lackadaisical libraries minister Ed Vaizey that very afternoon. He had specially emphasised digital inclusion and the two found themselves ‘in full agreement about moving forward’.
So I hope that means something. (Cynics might note that Cllr Stephens is from the Isle of Wight, not a very happy place for libraries.) But getting the LGA truly on side would make a big difference.
Also in the room were familiar faces from all the organisations that matter – the SCL, CILIP, Unison, The Library Campaign, the National Literacy Trust, Common Libraries, even Overdrive…
Everybody in the room welcomed the report. Everyone agreed that libraries – and librarians – are crucially important. Everyone agreed that the public gets it too.
Everyone, just about, complained that the only ones who don’t get it are those who could do something about libraries – central government, and large swathes of local government. That’s a very big mountain still to climb.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help spotting some other big elephants in the room. Local authorities have been financially whacked – hard. And they will get whacked again, even harder. Carrots or no carrots.
The damage so far – libraries in their hundreds closed, dumped on to volunteers, or gutted by cuts – is beyond repair.
And we have already lost for ever the coherent, consistent national network that was such an important part of the libraries ‘offer’.
Everyone said they are dead keen to get going.
But get going on what? The taskforce is the only thing the report has delivered so far.
Now it’s time for the taskforce to deliver.