In open CILIP Council session today Annie Mauger, CILIP CEO explained that Ed Vaizey is refusing to meet her. Previously the Minister would meet on a regular basis, but he has chosen not to see her, but through his aides has said that he will only accept written contact. Of course, written contact is no contact at all. Annie's viewpoint is that a direct corrolation can be drawn between his attitude and the vote of no confidence that was passed at the last CILIP AGM.
Furthermore, in a CILIP press release today it's revealed that key advice on the Government’s gov.uk website about setting up community managed libraries does not appear to have Ministerial sign-off. Does this mean that Vaizey doesn't know about it, doesn't care, or has specifically chosen to snub the information profession and library campaigners and activists?
What's very clear is that there is a worsening of the relationship between the profession and the minister in charge of libraries. I'm not entirely sure that this should come as any great surprise really - and if anyone IS surprised, they are either hopelessly naive about the workings of government or they have held Mr Vaizey in rather too high regard. We're really dealing now with the politics of the playground, and it's all really rather sad. It doesn't mean that (in theory) no-one in government is listening, since there are other ministers available whose work crosses ours, and of course there is the opposition, but I really can't see this is going to increase our ability to advocate for and on behalf of libraries. We can't force someone to talk to us, even if it is the minister, and he's hardly likely to care if he gets brickbats in blogs or the press over the attitude that he's taking - it would appear that his interest in the library service is limited to the ways in which it can be dismantled as quickly as possible.
So, where do we go from here? Trying to get a minister to intervene when he has a mind not to isn't going to work. He hasn't intervened yet, and he's not about to start now, whatever we do - of that I feel sure. The petitions, campaigns and the like are simply rolling off him like water on a duck's back. The concept that libraries are 'a good thing' - while logical and sensible and accurate - will not work in a political climate that does not value anything except money. And here I'm clear that the 'political climate' is not Tory or LibDem or Labour - it's all of them. The government is happy to cut, and indeed is ideologically inclined to do so. Labour wants to show how damaging the cuts are to communities, and to let libraries go to the wall would in many cases suit them very well - certainly at a local level. Of course at a local level there are heroic efforts being made across party boundaries, but these are few and far between; I do not believe that we can look to any political party to ideologically support libraries.
So what can we do instead? We've seen fantastic efforts by local Friends groups, professional organisations and pressure groups, but perhaps it's time to really start reconsidering our approach. There's a very interesting blog post from the ever marvellous Librarian in Black, Sarah Houghton called 'The wrong love' and it's worth a read if you haven't already. One line sums up her argument "We should be campaigning that “The Library Loves You”…not begging for loving scraps of endearment ourselves." Perhaps it's time to focus less on how much we love our libraries, since I'm not convinced that works. It certainly doesn't seem to work with the people that it needs to work with - the politicians. We need to move the focus away from reading to questioning. Sure, the ALA 'Read' posters are great, but that's a message that we're all familiar with. Libraries help us ask the difficult questions. Libraries support communities when no-one else will. A library can help that small business or enterprise get onto its feet. A library can provide financial information for someone who is struggling to afford to eat - as well as great cookbooks! A library can provide the disengaged and disaffected youths with a place to interact with the rest of the community, to practice their music skills, to create content such as videos. A library can provide those medical books that the GP can prescribe. If we want a blunt message - I have a blunt message - Libraries save communities money. A pound spent on a library isn't a pound wasted, it's a pound invested. If money is all that politicians are going to listen to, we can do that. There's a wealth of information (excuse the pun) on how investment brings money into a community. Maybe our message shouldn't be 'Don't close our library' but instead 'Don't waste money closing libraries'. Some people already use that message, and make those points, but perhaps it's time to try and focus the message that money invested in libraries leads to wealthier and healthier communities. At the very least it will give people pause for thought, and maybe go into their library to find out why. Which isn't a bad thing.