TLC open meeting, Saturday June 14 2014.

This open meeting followed the AGM.

Report by Laura Swaffield, Chair of The Library Campaign.

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We had a wide range of people, from all over the country. The issue of volunteer libraries sparked some very hot debate.

But it’s clear to me that, whatever the disagreements, all present had a lot more in common than they had differences. Those who run volunteer libraries do not advocate the idea, and have campaigned hard against it.

All agreed that the whole network of libraries has become a catastrophic mess on minister Ed Vaizey’s watch.

People in all the political parties understand the value of public libraries. But none have any faith that their party will really take the issues on board.

There are hopes that the Sieghart report on public libraries (due at the end of the year) will come up with useful ideas. When it does, we’ll hold a wide consultation with the people who matter – library
users. If they support its proposals, we will campaign hard to get every political party to commit to it – before the general election.

But Sieghart can’t undo the damage that has already taken place. Nor can it counter the effects of continuing savage cuts to local authorities – unless all of them are made aware of the real costs of
wrecking their library services.

There’s widespread recognition, too, that many local councils are not playing fair. Consultations are skewed, and their findings ignored. Millions are wasted on vanity projects, consultants, uncontrolled
central service costs and high-paid senior posts.

The trend is to pick off the most vulnerable small libraries – the very ones that are most needed, and least likely to survive without council support.

The true agenda, in many cases, is to ignore all viable alternatives and enforce a chain of volunteer libraries that are pretty certain to fail. At that point, the council can claim that it did its best – and
can now sell off the buildings. As it always intended.

Another trend to watch is rocketing charges. Charges for internet use have long been creeping in, and one council is now charging £10 for inter-library loans.

Everyone agreed that public libraries should be publicly-funded and professionally staffed. That applied to all who run volunteer libraries. None had done so until they had campaigned long and hard
for a proper service to be retained by their council.

Unsurprisingly, the one area of disagreement was about the quality of volunteer libraries and their chances of survival. Is a volunteer library better than none? And anyway, do all council services offer
all that a good public library should?

Above all, comes the dilemma – if decent, competent people offer to help their local community, the answer will likely be: “Thanks, chum. Now we can close down even more public services and spend your money on things you don’t want.” Cynical public service cuts are poisoning
the well of civic goodwill.

It’s significant that Arts Council England and the DCMS were barely mentioned. The former does nothing relevant, the latter is positively hostile. Neither engages with library users.

So, plenty to campaign for. much work to do. Library users and campaigners will have to pool their resources and do the research and campaigning that’s really needed. And they need to pull in information from library users everywhere on what is really going on.

A long list of ideas was put together. We want feedback on what to prioritise. And more suggestions.

* Research – do volunteer libraries really save money? what are their problems? Identify whether (and where) posts have been created to recruit and oversee volunteers – and their associated costs.

* Research – which professional posts have been deleted to make savings in the back office and front line?

* Advice/toolkits on campaigning, understanding local authority budgets, spotting excessive and unnecessary spending.

* Publicity material for councillors and the general public on what public libraries offer and why they matter.

* Direct attack on the DCMS for not doing its job of defining – and ensuring – a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service for ‘all persons desiring to make use thereof’, as stipulated by the 1964 Act.

* Proper analysis of CIPFA figures to see what works, how good services operate, how poor services match up.

* Amass information on dodgy consultation by local authorities. Campaign for enforceable standards.

* Checklist of all that a public library service should offer – so both volunteer and public libraries can tick off what they have, identify gaps and keep alive awareness of libraries’ full potential.

* Campaign to reinstate clear standards for public libraries in England.

* Campaign for all libraries to be restored to the public service.

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