It was interesting to see that libraries are to be awarded £6,000,000 to help libraries work with arts and cultural organisations and local communities. (Speech by the DCMS Minister, and Press Release). I think it would be churlish to turn the money down, but while £6,000,000 seems like a lot, in the grand scheme of things, not so much. However, my concern is that it does seem to be rather ringfenced. If libraries are going to get money, I would hope and expect that the professional library staff should be able to work with their communities to decide on the best use of it. While it may be true that in some cases a community would benefit from an arts initiative, I'm sure as many if not considerably more would find it
helpful to be in a position to assist those in their communities back into work, provide them with assistance on changing their careers perhaps, or to work with those in other need, such as improving their literacy. If we're to emphasis the importance of the local community, as the Minister wishes us to, it is disappointing that a library may well be limited in the use of the money.
There is also an initiative to look at the way in which different authorities are using their library services, and it would make sense if the local Friends of library community groups were fully involved and consulted on the effects of cuts on services - it's far too simplistic to assume that all library services should offer the same services, and I would personally be concerned that the way this may go is to go for the lowest common denominator, and try to pull all library services down, rather than improve them all to be on a par with the very best. The idea that 2 different libraries (or library services) should spend the same amount of money and end up with the same amount of bookstock is fairly nonsensical. Once again, if libraries are to be managed and financed locally - as it seems they are, having national comparisions just doesn't make sense. On the other hand, if central Government does want to have a lot of control over what libraries do, perhaps it would also make sense that they called the local authorities into account at an earlier stage to ask them why some authorities can maintain services or increase visitor numbers, while others seem unable to do so.
I'm delighted to see that young primary school students are to be given library cards. I remember that when I first got mine it was like a rite of passage. We should encourage and foster that feeling. However, it's all well and good giving a child a library card, but if they don't have access to a library, well stocked with appropriate books chosen by library professionals, it's not going to be of much help to them. Staff should be able to encourage children to make use of the library, rather than just hand out cards. To say nothing of the fact that the child should also have direct access to a library in their own school, staffed by a specially trained librarian who can work with children to increase their levels of literacy.
Then, with a grinding inevitability, we come onto the issue of community libraries. On the one hand, the role of the information professional is seen as being of paramount importance, but on the other, it seems that community libraries provide another level of provision. These are not libraries, any more than a room full of books is a library, or the shelf of books in the charity shop is a library. The library requires the active involvement of a properly qualified information professional. They are the ones who are best positioned to decide how the library can develop to assist the community, they are the ones who work with local organisations in order to develop services, and they are the ones who can, with their ethical background and skills help develop resources to help particular groups. Community libraries may well give the impression of a thriving and effective local service, but for how long? And, if they fail, will this be seen as 'proof' that the community doesn't need a library?
So yes, £6,000,000 can be used, and used well. However, it's no substitute for a well thought out, carefully maintained, professional library service. Communities pay for them, and they deserve an excellent service.